#MeToo movement is not just about helping victims in Hollywood.
Justice was served in a New York federal courtroom recently as a jury awarded $425,000 to a woman who was fired from her job managing a Subway restaurant after she complained about the relentless sexual harassment she suffered at the hands of her supervisor. “I cried,” said Sherielee Figueroa after she heard the verdict. “I cried so hard and not because I wanted the money. It was more like I found justice. It made me feel complete.”
The award was unusual in that there was $275,000 awarded in punitive damages, an amount that in this case exceeded the federal statutory cap for such damages. Figueroa’s attorney said that this jury was sending a clear message that the #MeToo era has arrived.
Anthony LaDuca, Figueroa’s attorney stated: “Employers should know that when you do this to someone, it sends shockwaves of damage all over, and I think the jury understood that.”
Figueroa has never had an easy life. She moved around as a kid between New York City and Puerto Rico, pregnant at 17 and made ends meet working in fast food restaurants. But no phase of her life could compare to the six months she had to endure working under a male supervisor at the Subway in Penfield, N.Y. in 2014. The supervisor called Figueroa a “bitch,” speculated that he “got lucky last night,” and made sexually explicit references when handling the “slippery” neck of the salad dressing bottle and asked to see her breasts, according to the complaint and interviews with Figueroa and her attorney.
Figueroa’s position managing a Subway had been a dream, the culmination of a long climb up the fast food industry ladder with rungs at Dunkin Donuts and Kentucky Fried Chicken.
When she landed the job the previous year, she was 25 and had three children, including an infant. She and her husband were renting a house in Rochester, saving to buy their own. She was paid an hourly wage that she could stretch to about $3000 a month working upward of 50 hours a week. Her supervisor oversaw eight Subways restaurants in greater Rochester and routinely visited her store every Wednesday.
“My heart would literally feel like it was going to pop out of my chest,” she said when he came around. “It was bad.”
When Figueroa finally made a complaint to her supervisor’s boss, the district manager, in August 2014, very little was done to assuage the situation, according to the complaint. Ther was no internal investigation done, and no witnesses were interviewed. There was not even a tacit recirculation of Subway’s sexual harassment policy. Instead, the district manager invited Figueroa and her tormentor to a meeting at which he denied harassing her altogether. The district manager then threw up her hands and suggested that the two “hug it out,” according to the complaint.
“I told him I don’t want a hug,” Figueroa said.
A few weeks following that meeting, Figueroa filed a complaint with the New York State Division of Human Rights. The next day when Figueroa showed up for work, her personal items had been boxed up. She had been fired. From there, her life entered a tailspin. She had a panic attack. She fell behind in her bills. She and her family of five moved in with her parents, who were already housing four other people., including an ailing grandmother, in their Rochester apartment.
Figueroa was the sole breadwinner in her family. Her husband stayed at home with the children. She was prescribed medication for anxiety and depression. When she filed for unemployment benefits, the company contested her claim. She eventually won. “They did so much damage,” Figueroa said. “I lost my house. I was on medication. As a mom, I felt like I had let my kids down.”
The division of Human Rights found “probable cause” for her sexual harassment complaint and another complaint that she subsequently filed claiming retaliation, setting the stage for settlement talks.
Victim Blaming Backfires
When an agreement could not be reached, Figueroa sued in federal court. Her supervisor, his boss and the Texas-based limited liability company that owns the Subway franchise and others, KK Sub II LLC, were named as defendants. The trial played out over a week that Figueroa described as “the worst week of my life.”
They degraded mae as a person, “she said of the defense and witness that took the stand. “They put me through the floor.”
Among the tactics used by the defense, aside from denying the harassment and retaliation claims, was portraying Figueroa as a confident sexpot who not only invited advances from men but was unfazed by her interactions at Subway. At one point, the defense presented to the jury a photo of Figueroa she had posted to Facebook. The image showed her wearing makeup, glaring into the camera and wearing a revealing top.
This tactic was classic victim blaming and did it ever backfire.
“It didn’t relate to anything in the case,” juror Mary Olson said. “In my opinion, it was only introduced to make her look bad. I think most of the other jurors agreed on that.”
Perhaps sensing their misstep, the defense offered Figueroa $90,000 to go away prior to closing arguments. It was gut-check time. That was more money than Figueroa had ever seen in her life. She declined.
“If I would’ve taken the offer that they gave me it was like letting them win and I didn’t want them to win,” Figueroa said. “Iwanted the jury to let them know you guys did wrong and this is justice.”
The jury came in, made up of four men and four women. Tha all voted unanimously for Figueroa.
“Years ago, this probably would’ve just been laughed off, but hopefully now people are realizing you can’t treat people like that,” Olsen said. “With the punitive damages, we really thought the company needed to get sent a message that they had better implement some better procedures for dealing with sexual harassment cases.”
Federal law limits punitive damages for companies with between 201 and 500 employees, like KK Sub II LLC, to $20,000. But the company will still be liable for Figueroa’s attorney fees, which will likely bring the payout top over $500,000. The company can appeal.
In March, the New York Times explored whether workplaces were responding to the #MeToo, and asked Subway and other low-wage employers if they had taken steps in recent months to prevent harassment. Subway reportedly said they already had the right procedures in place.
Figueroa, now 30, eventually righted herself after her experience at Subway. In 2015, she began managing Dunkin Donuts in East Rochester and subsequently bought a house in the area. She said she had hopes of being promoted to director of operations one day and use the jury award to pay off her mortgage and establish college funds for her children.
Her former supervisor? He lost his job.
When the verdict was read, Figueroa broke down and hugged her attorney. Then she composed herself, walked out of the courthouse, got in her car and drove to Dunkin Donuts. She was scheduled to work.
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