$723K to supermarket clerk for wrongful termination, discrimination. Punitives. Los Angeles County.

Summary

Supermarket clerk is reclassifed as a manager, terminated after an illness. $723,645 verdict includes $500,000 punitives. Demand was only $199,999.

The Case

  • Case Name: Eun Joo Ko v. Square Group, LLC dba The Square Supermarket
  • Court and Case Number: Los Angeles Superior Court / BC487739
  • Date of Verdict or Judgment: Monday, June 16, 2014
  • Date Action was Filed: Saturday, July 07, 2012
  • Type of Action: Employment
  • Judge or Arbitrator(s): Hon. Michael L. Stern
  • Plaintiffs:
    Eun Joo Ko, 46, grocery store employee
  • Defendants:
    Square Group, LLC dba The Square Supermarket
  • Type of Result: Jury Verdict

The Result

  • Gross Verdict or Award: $723,645.64
  • Award as to each Defendant:

    Against Square Group, LLC dba The Square Supermarket

  • Economic Damages:

    Lost past earnings: $41,047.36
    Lost future earning: $14,665.00
    Lost Benefits: $10,000.00
    Unpaid overtime wages: $32,933.28

  • Non-Economic Damages:

    Emotional Distress: $125,000.00

  • Punitive Damages:

    $500,000.00

  • Trial or Arbitration Time: 4 days
  • Jury Deliberation Time: 2 days
  • Jury Polls: 12-0
  • Post Trial Motions & Post-Verdict Settlements: Not yet filed.

The Attorneys

  • Attorney for the Plaintiff:

    Henry M Lee, Law Corporation by Henry M. Lee and Robert Myong, Los Angeles.

  • Attorney for the Defendant:

    Epstein, Turner & Weiss by Jonathan M. Turner and Soo Y. Park, Los Angeles.

The Experts

  • Plaintiff’s Medical Experts:
    Jason Paek, M.D., internal medicine, Walnut.
  • Defendant's Medical Experts:
    None
  • Plaintiff's Technical Experts:
    Regina Romeo, human resources, Los Angeles.
  • Defendant's Technical Experts:
    None

Facts and Background

  • Facts and Background:

    From June 2009 through January 2012, plaintiff Eun Joo Ko worked as a non-exempt data entry clerk, buyer, and cashier at defendant's grocery store. Plaintiff worked 60 or more hours per week.

    In November of 2009, plaintiff was switched to a flat salary although her duties remained the same and work hours remained the same. In January of 2012, plaintiff became seriously ill due to a kidney infection. Plaintiff could not work and sought medical care from her Kaiser primary care physician. She was diagnosed with septic shock, and her primary care physician instructed that she immediately go to a larger facility with emergency room care.

    While plaintiff was out on medical leave, defendant demanded plaintiff obtain a doctor's note, which she did. However, the note she submitted had handwritten changes to the dates of leave. Defendant rejected the first note and demanded a note from Kaiser within a 48-hour deadline.

    Plaintiff was thereafter terminated. 

  • Plaintiff's Contentions:

    That no one notified plaintiff of the deadline for the note from Kaiser or the termination condition.  That plaintiff was able to obtain the Kaiser note which confirmed her condition and same dates off as the first doctor's note. When plaintiff notified defendant she had the note, she was terminated anyway.

    Plaintiff contended that defendant felt she was a "terrorist" because of her missing work without the Kaiser note.

    On her wage claims, plaintiff contended that she was improperly classified as an exempt employee; she sought payment of unpaid overtime wages, missed meal and rest period wages, paystub penalties, and waiting time penalties.

    On her discrimination and wrongful termination claims, plaintiff asserted disability discrimination, failure to accommodate, violation of CFRA for medical leave, retaliation for taking medical leave, and termination in violation of public policy.

    Plaintiff asked for punitive damages.

  • Defendant's Contentions:

    That plaintiff was promoted to manager, and had supervisory duties and responsibilities over other employees at the market.  Per defense counsel, the jurors did not reject these facts, but merely concluded that those additional duties and responsibilities were not sufficient to make her an “exempt” employee under California wage and hour laws.

    That while plaintiff’s doctor diagnosed her with the first stage of possible “septic shock,” plaintiff went to Kaiser just a day later.  During this later visit, the Kaiser doctor who examined her diagnosed her with a “urinary tract infection,” a common and less serious condition.

    That while plaintiff testified at trial that at the time she was informed of her termination she told her employer she had a doctor’s note, this testimony did not comport with her deposition testimony, where she stated that when informed of her termination there was “no discussion.”

    That defendant did not characterize plaintiff as a “terrorist” for missing work.  This is a mischaracterization of testimony in which he stated that when addressing plaintiff’s conduct, he took into consideration how her conduct affected other employees.

    Defendant alleged that plaintiff was terminated for other performance problems.

Demands and Offers

  • Plaintiff §998 Demand: $199,999
  • Defendant §998 Offer: None.