The Columbus Dispatch

Black ex-saks worker wins $9M in suit

- Mark Williams

A Franklin County jury has awarded $9.3 million in damages to a Black former Saks Fifth Avenue worker at the Saks store at Polaris Fashion Place who claimed she was a victim of racial discrimina­tion that eventually led to her terminatio­n in 2019.

The eight-member jury in Franklin County Common Pleas Court made the award May 25 in favor of Elizabeth Cook of Canal Winchester, who argued that her managers at the store treated her differentl­y and unfairly compared with her non-african-american coworkers. She said she was eventually terminated for violating a policy that wasn’t in effect at the time she was fired.

Beyond awarding damages for past and future lost wages and other noneconomi­c damages, the award included $7 million in punitive damages.

In a statement issued through her lawyer, Thomas Spyker, Cook thanked the magistrate judge who managed the case, Elizabeta Saken, and the jury.

“This process helped restore the dignity I lost five years ago when I was unlawfully terminated by Saks Fifth Avenue,” she said. “While I can understand that rogue managers and bad employees can lead to bad outcomes like mine, I still cannot fathom how Saks’s internal racial discrimina­tion complaint process completely failed.

“I made a complaint. It was ignored in violation of Saks’ written policy. There was a process in place built to protect me. That process failed. I think the jury’s award reflects that. My hope is that Saks has learned from this and others who find themselves in my position moving forward are protected.”

For its part, Saks continues to defend its actions and Cook’s former managers who also were named in the case, and said other associates were terminated for violating the same company policy that Cook violated.

“We do not tolerate employees violating our policies, and reserve the right to

hold them accountabl­e in all instances, including through terminatio­n,” the retailer said in a statement. “Our position remains that there was no discrimina­tion or retaliatio­n involved in this situation. We are disappoint­ed in the jury’s decision and plan to appeal the outcome.”

Final award likely to be reduced, expert says

All eight members of the jury agreed to award Cook a total of $2.3 million for past and future lost wages and noneconomi­c damages on her separate claims of retaliatio­n and discrimina­tion, court records show. Seven of the eight jurors agreed to the $7 million award for punitive damages.

The jury also awarded attorney fees. The actual amount likely will be reduced once a final judgment is in place, said Steve Chappelear, a Columbus attorney who has tracked jury awards for decades.

The legislatur­e has put caps in place to limit damages against businesses, but jurors aren’t aware of those caps when they deliberate, he said.

A 2016 Ohio Supreme Court ruling, for example, upheld the reduction of a jury’s award of $3.5 million for noneconomi­c damages to $250,000 to a girl who had been raped by her pastor in Delaware County.

While the award in the Cook case is large, putting it in context is tough because few racial discrimina­tion cases go to trial, said Chappelear, with Eastman & Smith law firm. Several awards have been bigger in civil cases in Franklin County.

Franklin County jurors tend to be conservati­ve in civil cases, he said.

“The average case is going to return an average verdict, but if it’s a case that shocks the conscious, that shows malice, they’re not shy about awarding a large number,” he said.

Cook was one of Saks’ top sales associate, lawsuit claims

“During Plaintiff ’s tenure at Saks, she was forced to endure a pervasive pattern of discrimina­tion and retaliatio­n by defendants,” the lawsuit said of the store managers. “Although they were each committed to maintainin­g Saks reputation as a luxury retailer by providing stellar customer service, her managers deliberate­ly targeted her because of her race.”

The lawsuit alleged a racial bias at the store and claimed Black shoppers were profiled when they entered. Cook said in the case that her efforts to get help from the company’s human resources department failed.

Cook worked at the store for more than eight years, starting part time in the shoe department and working her way up to become one of the top sales associates at the store, generating more than $1 million in sales for Saks per year, according to the lawsuit.

Throughout her tenure at the store, she said the discipline she received, including her terminatio­n, was applied in a racially discrimina­tory manner. For example, she said she was discipline­d for swearing even though it was common among store employees.

Cook was fired in August 2019 for what she said was violating a policy banning a practice called “re-ringing” that was not yet in effect.

The lawsuit alleged that it was common for store employees to engage in reringing in which customers were allowed to return and purchase the same item, essentiall­y changing the date of sale, so that they could participat­e in promotions or sales after the original purchase.

Many of the promotions allowed customers to accumulate points to use for future purchases or get money back.

On Aug. 19, 2019, the company issued a policy that banned the policy. Cook was fired the next day though other non-black employees were not terminated for doing the same thing, according to the lawsuit. @Bizmarkwil­liams

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