Retail heavyweight Target Corp. has shelled out $275,000 to extract itself from a wrongful termination claim by a longtime employee at its Woodland store.
Margarita Arriaga alleged in a civil rights lawsuit in Sacramento federal court that she was fired because she was late going on lunch breaks after working at the Bronze Star Drive store more than 16 years.
Now 40, Arriaga worked as a cashier, shelf stocker and saleswoman. By the company's own account in court papers she was "well-liked by her managers and peers, and she received generally satisfactory performance evaluations."
She was fired, Target said in the papers, because she was late taking a meal break three times in 18 months "an automatic ground for termination of any Target employee."
On one of those occasions, Arriaga was two minutes tardy. Target "makes no exception for 'two-minute violations,' " the company declared in court papers.
Because of a diagnosed disability, Arriaga had trouble keeping track of time and was reminded to take her breaks by other employees over the years, the January 2010 complaint related. It said that, in 2009, despite Target's awareness of her disability, this accommodation ceased and, "without any verbal or written warning," she was fired in June of that year.
Target emphatically denied in court papers that store personnel, including its managers, were aware of a disability:
"Target did not discriminate based on disability, did not fail to reasonably accommodate, and did not fail to engage in the interactive (accommodation) process, because Target did not know about plaintiff's alleged disability."
Fellow employees "believed only that she was shy, timid, anxious, or nervous," the company maintained. "The most that Target ever did was to periodically remind employees when to take meal breaks. Reminders were not a routine practice."
Arriaga, a graduate of Woodland High School, countered that it was well known at the store that she consistently lost track of time because of a disability. She pointed out that she obtained her job through a non-profit community organization that intercedes with employers on behalf of mentally disabled people. The same organization, she said, furnished her with "job coaches" at the store from time to time to assist in dealing with difficulties she encountered, especially in the early part of her employment.
Attorney Larry Lockshin filed the suit in Yolo Superior Court on behalf of Arriaga, but Target removed it to federal court, as was its right because the company is based in a different state, Minnesota, than the plaintiff.
In addition to claims of discrimination and lack of accommodation, the suit alleged that "Target, without any factual basis to justify its actions, opposed in writings delivered to the Employment Development Department Arriaga's application for unemployment benefits, and falsely accused Arriaga of conduct which Target alleged was the equivalent of a voluntary resignation."
The EDD "conducted its own investigation and determined that Target's opposition was without merit and that Arriaga was in fact entitled under law to the benefits," the suit said.
Lockshin abandoned that issue, however, because California law does not apply to a factual scenario like this one.
When it came time to settle, Target, with Lockshin's cooperation, wanted everything sealed, but U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton was unsympathetic to its plea.
Because of Arriaga's disability she proceeded with her sister as a court-appointed guardian ad litem to protect her interests the settlement had to be submitted to Karlton to satisfy him it was fair.
In a court affidavit, Target attorney Jerry Deschler Jr. argued that "it would be inherently prejudicial" to his client if the terms of the settlement became public because they "could be taken as an admission of liability." He further argued that disclosure "would likely undermine future settlement negotiations in other cases by creating expectations of similar or better terms."
Karlton was not persuaded.
"The parties have offered no compelling reasons to seal these documents, and the court will not do so," he wrote in a three-page order.
Lockshin declined to comment on the settlement, citing its confidentiality clause.
Target spokeswoman Molly Snyder said in an email: "We take numerous steps to accommodate team members and guests with disabilities and we are confident in our policies and procedures. The terms of the agreement are confidential, therefore we cannot discuss it further."