For years, Jeanette Ortiz was a loyal, hardworking general manager for Chipotle Mexican Grill on Shaw Avenue across from the Fresno State campus.
But in January 2015, Ortiz was fired, accused of stealing $626 in cash from the restaurant's safe, said a lawyer for Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. There was even video evidence to prove Ortiz's theft, the lawyer said.
But when Ortiz denied stealing the money and asked to see the video evidence, her bosses at Chipotle declined. Instead, the company destroyed the video evidence, said Fresno attorneys Warren Paboojian and Jason Bell, who represent Ortiz in a wrongful termination case she brought against the fast-food giant.
On Thursday, Fresno County Superior Court jurors ordered Chipotle to pay Ortiz nearly $8 million in damages, ruling that she was not a thief, but was a victim of a scheme to fire and defame her for filing a worker's compensation claim for a job-related injury to her wrist caused by carpal tunnel syndrome.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Fresno Bee
The jury deliberated about four hours before reaching its verdict in Judge Jeffrey Hamilton's courtroom.
But the trial isn't over. Both sides return to Hamilton's court on Monday to determine how much Chipotle must pay in punitive damages to Ortiz. Courts assess punitive damages to deter reprehensible acts, like what the jury determined Chipotle did to Ortiz, from happening again.
Ortiz is entitled the punitive damages because the jury found that Chipotle upper management had maliciously fired her.
The case went to trial because Chipotle offered to give Ortiz, 42, only $1,000 to settle her civil complaint. During the trial, Paboojian asked the jury to award Ortiz least $10 million.
In closing arguments, Paboojian attacked the credibility of Chipotle's upper management, including Ben Castillo, who oversees about 70 restaurants from Fresno to the coast to Southern California, and Ortiz's immediate supervisor, Janelle Schrader.
Los Angeles attorney Robert Hinckley, who defended Chipotle, told the jury that Schrader, Castillo and three others looked at the video and determined that Ortiz stole the money on Dec. 29, 2014.
That was different from the testimony of a key witness in the trial, former Chipotle assistant manager Mike Hunsaker, who worked with Ortiz and helped her count the daily receipts. He testified that he last saw the $636 in cash, which was in an envelope, on Dec. 30, 2014, Paboojian said.
Hinckley also said Chipotle upper management had no malice toward Ortiz, but felt betrayed because the corporation had supported her through four pregnancies and four worker's compensation claims, and was thinking of promoting her. "She was well-liked. She was a valued employee," Hinckley told the jury. "But she violated that trust by taking the money."
In his argument, Hinckley said he didn't know why Ortiz took the funds, but told the jury that Ortiz, who is married with nine children, had fallen on hard times in the fall of 2014. She had to get a loan from a relative to pay an electric bill of $1,700 and had to move from her house to a small apartment. She also told a colleague that she had to get a second job because she needed the money.
Paboojian told the jury that many people live paycheck to paycheck. "But that doesn't make them a thief," he said.
The theft claim was ridiculous, Paboojian said, because company officials had repeatedly given Ortiz outstanding performance reviews during her 14 years with the company. She was making $70,000 a year as a general manager and company officials had talked about promoting her to a position that would have paid her at least $100,000, he said.
That all changed, Paboojian said, when Ortiz filed a worker's compensation claim in December 2014. Because of her dedication, she continued to work with her injured wrist until Jan. 18, 2015, when she went on medical leave. While on leave, upper management fired her without showing her the video evidence, Paboojian said. He called the move "evil," "indecent," and un-American.
Paboojian said the credibility of Chipotle's witnesses was suspect because they said Ortiz took an envelope of cash out of the safe, took out the money, fanned the bills, and looked over her shoulder to make sure no one was watching. That's absurd, Paboojian told the jury, because why would Ortiz look over her shoulder when she knew the video camera was above the safe.
In addition to taping over the video evidence, Paboojian told the jury that Chipotle management deleted text messages and lost notes about the reasons for firing Ortiz.
Hinckley, however, said Chipotle has a policy of not showing video evidence to employees. He also said it was a mistake that the video evidence was lost.
Paboojian said Chipotle had motive to get rid of Ortiz. He also said Chipotle's witnesses had reason to lie: "They had to protect their jobs," Paboojian told the jury.
Paboojian said that after Ortiz filed her worker's compensation claim, Scharader instructed her to minimize her injury to the doctor so she could return to work. Ortiz refused to falsely report her injuries to her doctor and took medical leave, causing her to get terminated, Paboojian said.
In closing arguments, Paboojian said the ordeal of losing her job and being labeled a thief caused Ortiz to suffer anxiety and humiliation. He also told the jury that she felt worthless and couldn't sleep.
In the end, jurors awarded Ortiz $6 million for emotional distress and $1.97 million for loss of past and future wages.