Jeanette Ortiz — a 14-year Chipotle veteran before she was fired in 2015 — was awarded nearly $8 million by a jury in Fresno County Superior Court for loss of wages, as well as damage to her reputation and emotional and mental distress.
On Monday, she and her attorneys settled with Chipotle for a separate, confidential amount — apparently in lieu of punitive damages, which could have run as high as nine times the nearly $8 million award. Thus putting to an end the three-year ordeal that had branded the mother of nine a traitor.
“She’s the American Dream; she’s just a hardworking person. And when you call somebody a thief, you destroy their life,” Ortiz’s attorney, Warren Paboojian, told The Post after Monday’s verdict. “That’s the ultimate. You’re not going to be able to get a job anywhere with that label hanging over her head.”
Ortiz could not be reached by The Washington Post. Paboojian said she had worked 50 hours a week as a general manager at the Mexican fast-casual chain, making $72,000 a year. When she was fired in January 2015, she was up for a promotion in which she would have earned $100,000 a year. For years, Ortiz had consistently earned glowing performance reviews.
Last week’s verdict was first reported by the Fresno Bee.
Paboojian said that in fall 2014, the Chipotle location where Ortiz worked had an extra $636, according to court documents, on hand after an armored car that routinely came to swap large bills out for smaller change didn’t show up. Paboojian said Ortiz found the extra money, sealed and stapled it in a manila envelope, and contacted the corporate office to flag the extra cash. She then put the money in a safe in view of a surveillance camera.
That December, Ortiz filed a workers’ compensation claim while suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome. Paboojian said her bosses were unhappy that she would be missing work. And Ortiz believed that she was fired because of her disability.
On Jan. 3, 2015, Ortiz texted her boss and two other superiors to say the money was missing from the safe, Paboojian said. She told them that she had last seen the money on Dec. 30, along with another assistant manager.
At that point, the store brought in another manager who looked at the surveillance footage and said it showed Ortiz taking the money and putting it in her backpack on Dec. 29 — a charge Ortiz denied.
When she asked to see the footage, the employees told her that was against corporate policy.
But Paboojian said there’s no actual written policy that dictates whether employees can be shown video footage in these cases.
“They use that lack of corporate policy as a weapon against their employees when they want to get rid of them,” Paboojian said.
In court, Paboojian said her bosses filmed over the tape and deleted text messages and other notes detailing why they fired Ortiz, the Bee reported.
Still, Robert Hinckley, Chipotle’s lawyer, told jurors that the company has a policy of not showing video evidence to employees, the Bee reported. Hinckley did not return a request for comment by The Post.
On Monday morning, a Chipotle spokesperson told The Post that the company doesn’t comment on pending litigation. The spokesperson did not respond to a follow-up email asking whether it is company policy to not show employees video footage. The spokesperson also did not respond to questions after the case was closed.
Paboojian told The Post that surveillance footage in the store tapes over itself periodically.
“If you don’t clip parts or save it, you can just let 45 days run and then it just tapes over, and they say ‘oops,’ ” Paboojian said.
Last week, Hinckley told jurors that it was a mistake that the footage was lost, according to the Bee.
Hinckley told jurors that while Ortiz’s bosses had no ill will toward her, they felt betrayed when she allegedly stole the money because the company had supported her through four pregnancies and four workers’ compensation claims, the Bee reported.
“She was well-liked. She was a valued employee. But she violated that trust by taking the money,” Hinckley told the jury, according to the Bee.
Hinckley also told jurors that Ortiz was struggling financially around the time her bosses accused her of stealing the cash. Ortiz had borrowed $1,700 from a relative to pay an electric bill, and she had to move from her house to a smaller apartment. Ortiz also told a colleague that she had taken on a second job, the Bee reported.
But in court, Paboojian noted that just because people are strapped for cash doesn’t mean they are thieves.
Paboojian told The Post that four other people had access to the safe. The money still has not been recovered.
By Paboojian’s recollection, the total damages awarded to Ortiz were Fresno County’s the second-largest employment verdict.
“It’s a large verdict, but it’s large because of the impact that an employer can have on somebody when they call them a thief,” Paboojian said.
Since she was fired, Ortiz has not been able to find work, Paboojian said. Whenever she applied for jobs, she would have to note on her résumé that she was terminated and tell potential employers that she was fired for stealing.
Chipotle did not know whether any of Ortiz’s bosses would face any punishment.
“We’ll have to wait and see,” Paboojian said. “That’s up to Chipotle.”