Pittsfield woman awarded $780,000 in termination suit against BJ's Wholesale Club
PITTSFIELD — A jury has awarded $780,000 in back pay and damages to a city woman who claimed she was fired for complaining about workplace discrimination at her job at BJ's Wholesale Club.
"We're elated," said attorney Tani E. Sapirstein, who represented Danielle Demas.
Demas worked in several locations of the retail outlet from 2005 to 2012. She worked in the Pittsfield location as a receiving and inventory manager from October 2011 until she was fired in March 2012, according to court filings.
In her suit, Demas claimed that she was retaliated against for airing complaints that she was mistreated after her sexual orientation became known to co-workers and supervisors.
After a five-day trial in Berkshire Superior Court before Judge Daniel Ford, a jury on Friday awarded her $130,000 in back pay and $650,000 in punitive damages.
Sapirstein said the decision to file the suit and bring the case to trial was a hard one.
She called the process, "anxiety-producing," for clients, especially in the face of having been fired from a long-held job.
"After our family, we all define ourselves by what we do," Sapirstein said.
Maria Fruci, a spokesperson for BJ's, said while the company respected the jury's time and attention, it does not agree with the verdict and will be asking the court to reconsider it and will explore its right to appeal, if necessary.
"BJ's Wholesale Club Inc. has zero tolerance for discrimination, harassment and retaliation and such conduct is not tolerated by the company," the statement read in part. "(We) continue to believe that BJ's and its team members treated the plaintiff appropriately."
According to court files, Demas was called in to a meeting with a supervisor and the human resources manager in December 2011 and was asked where she was living and with whom and whether she was having a relationship with a female employee.
Demas said she was dating another employee and would sometimes stay overnight at her apartment due to a 90-minute commute from the store to home.
During that meeting, Demas was told she would need to transfer to another store.
She questioned that decision, because her understanding of the company's policy was that relatives could not work in the same store, but there was no policy about co-workers dating.
As a result of that meeting, information about Demas' private relationship became known throughout the store and she began fielding questions from supervisors about who was spending nights at her home, among other issues, according to the suit.
On March 7, 2012, Demas raised issues regarding her treatment with the home office via email, but received no reply.
About a week later, she was called into another meeting, during which she was told she was being fired for forging the time on a forwarded email to make it appear it had been sent at a particular time.
That allegation is false, according to Sapirstein, noting Demas does not know how to accomplish such a change.
Before her dismissal, Demas received positive work evaluations and was next in line for a promotion when a position became available, according to court documents.
Sapirstein said the financial damages won't actually be awarded until an appeals process is exhausted, but said interest accrues on those damages at a rate of 12 percent a year until the case is finally settled.