Jeanette Ortiz, a longtime Chipotle manager who was fired in 2015 after being accused of stealing $636, was awarded nearly $8 million by a Fresno County Superior Court jury in a wrongful termination lawsuit. According to a news report in The Washington Post, this week, Ortiz and her attorneys settled with Chipotle for a separate confidential amount in lieu of punitive damages, which could have run as high as nine times the nearly $8 million award.
Ortiz’s attorney said the mother of nine had been branded a traitor and her reputation had been destroyed causing her tremendous emotional and mental distress. She was unable to land a job anywhere else, he said. Ortiz had reportedly worked 50 hours a week as general manager making $72,000 a year. When she was fired in January 2015, she was up for a promotion, as a result of which she would have earned $100,000 a year. She had consistently earned glowing performance reviews.
Allegation of Theft
In the fall of 2014, the Chipotle location where Ortiz worked had an extra $636 on hand. Ortiz found the extra money, sealed and stapled it in a manila envelope and contacted the corporate office to flag the additional cash. She then put it in a safe in view of a surveillance camera. That December Ortiz filed a workers’ comp claim for carpal tunnel. Soon afterward, the money went missing from the safe.
The store brought in another manager who looked at the surveillance footage saying it showed Ortiz taking the money and putting it her backpack, a charge Ortiz denied. She wasn’t allowed to see the footage, but was denied saying it wasn’t corporate policy to do so. Her attorney said Ortiz’s bosses filmed over the tape and deleted text messages and other notes detailing why they fired Ortiz. She believes they did so because of her pending workers’ compensation claim.
This case is an example of how employees who believe they have been wrongfully terminated from their jobs can seek and obtain justice by filing an employment lawsuit. Often, employers have a variety of motivations to let go of their employee. While California is an “at-will” state, which means employers can terminate their employees without giving a reason and employees can quit without providing a reason, it is never acceptable to unjustly fire an employee, not to mention tarnishing their reputation and ruining future employment or career prospects. As California employment lawyers, we are relieved that justice was served in this case.