Chipotle Mexican Grill was ordered to pay $550,000 to a former employee of its Dupont Circle store after a jury ruled she had been discriminated against, and ultimately fired, for being pregnant.
Doris Garcia Hernandez, 31, who worked at the Chipotle on M Street NW, says her supervisor began restricting access to drinking water and forbidding routine breaks after she informed him that she was pregnant in November 2011, according to the complaint filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. She was fired a few months later, after leaving work early to go to a prenatal doctor’s appointment.
A jury of eight deliberated for three hours before issuing its decision last week. The award includes $50,000 in compensatory damages and $500,000 in punitive damages.
“This is a victory for working women,” said Christine Tschiderer, an attorney for the Washington Lawyers’ Committee who helped represent Hernandez. “It sends a clear message to employers that pregnancy is not incompatible with the workplace.”
A spokesman for Chipotle said the company does not plan to appeal the court’s decision.
“We maintain that Chipotle’s actions in this case were legal and appropriate, but we are moving on from this issue,” Chris Arnold said in an email.
Hernandez says her supervisor, identified as David Hahn in court documents, harassed her in a variety of ways. When she needed to use the bathroom, for example, she was required to tell each employee in the store where she was going, and then wait for permission to leave her post. There were no such rules in place for non-pregnant workers, according to the complaint.
Hernandez was fired in January 2012. In her complaint, the mother of three says she told Hahn days in advance that she would need to leave early. He ignored those requests and on the morning of the appointment, told her she couldn’t go. She did anyway.
The next morning, Hahn fired Hernandez in front of other employees in the store’s lobby. Prior to announcing her pregnancy, Hernandez had received positive performance reviews for her work at the store, where she made tortillas and salsa, rolled burritos and prepped vegetables, the complaint says.
Hahn, who voluntarily left Chipotle shortly after firing Hernandez, testified on behalf of the company during the four-day trial, court documents show. During his testimony, Hahn said he had not imposed a separate bathroom policy for Hernandez, and that he had fired her for reasons unrelated to her pregnancy.
Calls to Chipotle’s attorneys to reach Hahn went unreturned.
The outcome of the proceedings comes as yet another blow for the fast-casual chain, which has been scrambling to recover after a series of E. coli and norovirus outbreaks linked to illnesses late last year. In February, Chipotle was ordered to pay three former general managers roughly $600,000 after a federal grand jury determined the company had discriminated against and fired the women because of their gender.
Hernandez’s troubles at Chipotle spurred the D.C. Council to pass the Protecting Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which requires employers to provide pregnant workers with basic accommodations, such as access to drinking water and more frequent bathroom breaks.
The new law — and last week’s verdict — are particularly important in helping low-wage workers and immigrants fight gender and pregnancy discrimination, said Jonathan Smith, executive director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee.
“No woman should be forced to choose between a prenatal appointment and her job,” Smith said.