Retaliation for Filing a Class Action Warranted $6.6 Million Punitive Damages Award -- Marlo v. United Parcel Service
Plaintiff Michael Marlo was a UPS shipping supervisor who claimed that he was owed unpaid overtime wages because UPS had misclassified the position as salaried-exempt. In fact, he signed on as the named plaintiff in a class action lawsuit.
And then he got fired.
The class action apparently sputtered out after the District Court denied class certification. However, Marlo brought a separate lawsuit alleging that he was wrongfully terminated in retaliation for his involvement in the case. A jury not only agreed with him but awarded $15.9 million in punitive damages (which was later reduced to $6.6 million).
Although the Ninth Circuit's opinion upholding this $6.6 Million punitive damage award is unpublished, it nevertheless contains an interesting analysis as to when personnel decisions by individual managers may trigger punitive damages against the corporate employer.
Further, Robinson viewed part of his role as maintaining a company “culture”—in essence, a company policy—of supervisors acting as “owners” subject to a salary, rather than the overtime pay sought by Marlo. Marlo’s lawsuit, which initially sought $400 million in class-wide damages, threatened to upend that culture. Robinson discussed the potential impact of Marlo’s lawsuit with his senior staff and expressed his displeasure that other supervisors were filing similar lawsuits. He viewed the lawsuit as a “distraction” that had a negative effect on employee morale. The jury could thus reasonably conclude that Robinson’s decision to terminate Marlo was a policymaking decision aimed at protecting the company “culture.”
In other words, the court seemed to endorse the theory that a self-conscious "corporate culture" is tantamount to a corporate "policy." And efforts to sustain or protect that culture may therefore amount to "policy making" decisions sufficient to trigger company-wide liability for punitive damages.