Marc Brumer of Brumer & Brumer in Miami and R. Martin Saenz of Saenz & Anderson in Aventura convinced a federal jury to award $21.5 million to devout Christian and former hotel dishwasher Marie Jean Pierre, after she was fired from the Conrad Miami Hotel for refusing to work Sundays.
The Brickell hotel was one of several luxury Hilton franchises owned by Park Hotels and Resort Inc., formally known as Hilton Worldwide Inc., but has since changed ownership.
For Pierre — a member of the Bethel Church in Miami and Catholic missionary group Soldiers of Christ — Sundays meant a lot.
“[Pierre] made a pact with God,” Saenz said. “In her mind, she has a great family, she’s able to provide for all of her children and get them to be professionals, and in exchange she devotes her days to God, especially Sundays.”
Working on that day, the Sabbath, was akin to violating that pact, her attorneys said.
When Pierre began working at the Conrad in 2006, she didn’t know her belief was protected by law, according to Saenz. So when she was scheduled to work a Sunday each month, she showed up for work until she couldn’t stand it anymore.
After a chat with her supervisors in 2009, Pierre resigned. But the Conrad asked her to come back, offering a deal — no more Sundays. According to Saenz, the hotel kept its promise until 2015, when kitchen manager George Colon became Pierre’s direct supervisor and suddenly changed the schedule.
Pierre was fired in March 2016 after missing six Sunday shifts. She called ahead every time, according to Saenz, reminding her supervisors she couldn’t work that day and even having her pastor write a letter explaining as much.
But it was no use, according to the lawsuit Pierre later filed in the Southern District of Florida, alleging religious discrimination under Title VII of the Florida Civil Rights Act of 1992.
“If they knew she wasn’t going to go, why did they keep scheduling her?” said Saenz.
It wasn’t a typical case for Brumer and Saenz, who asked the jury for $50 million. While they’ve handled countless racial discrimination lawsuits, religious discrimination rarely make it to trial.
The defense denied the allegations, claiming in its answer to the complaint that Pierre didn’t abide by company policies.
Defense lawyers Scott S. Allen and Anisley Tarragona of Jackson Lewis in Miami deferred comment to their client, which pointed out that the jury initially returned a defense verdict but awarded $25 million in damages.
U.S. District Judge Darrin P. Gayles ruled the verdict was inconsistent and sent jurors back to reconsider.
“We were very disappointed by the jury’s verdict and don’t believe that it is supported by the facts of this case or the law,” Hilton said via a spokesperson Monday. “During Ms. Pierre’s 10 years with the hotel, multiple concessions were made to accommodate her personal and religious commitments. We intend to appeal and demonstrate that the Conrad Miami was and remains a welcoming place for all guests and employees.”
According to Brumer, the jury was rushed, having taken just two hours to deliberate on a Friday evening amid a government shutdown.
Faced with an unusually lengthy verdict form, jurors found that Hilton knew about the plaintiff’s beliefs, which are protected by law, but disagreed that religion was the motivation for her firing.
The defense argued that it had spent years accommodating for Pierre’s religious beliefs, but according to Saenz that shouldn’t have mattered.
“I think the defense was effective at getting the jury confused on that issue,” Saenz said. “What counts are the accommodations that got you fired, or the lack of accommodation that got you fired. Not the one that you received 10 years prior.”
At trial, the plaintiffs case centered around what happened at a meeting in which supervisors asked staff about their availability.
“For some odd reason, Ms. Jean Pierre didn’t attend the meeting. Our argument all along was they didn’t tell her,” Saenz said. “And on that day during that meeting they also determined that the only person in the entire hotel who needs to take all of Sunday off to observe her religious beliefs is Ms. Jean Pierre.”
Brumer and Saenz obtained the minutes from that meeting, which demonstrated that all other staff were available to work on Sundays. From Brumer’s perspective, that didn’t go over well with the jury.
“When someone requests something like this you’re supposed to have meetings, you’re supposed to sit down and see if you can work it out,” Brumer said. “They didn’t do that, so I think that really upset the jury.”
Another crucial aspect for Brumer and Saenz was showing that Pierre, a Haitian immigrant who only speaks Creole, wasn’t given a proper interpreter when she sat down to review write-ups with her English and Spanish-speaking managers.
“Some of the chefs that were Puerto Rican, that didn’t speak Creole, had signed where it says interpreter,” Brumer said. “It was a scam.”
When some supervisors claimed they didn’t know about the plaintiff’s beliefs during cross examination, Brumer and Saenz pointed the jury to Pierre’s human resources file, which proved she’d been accommodated for years.
‘A moral lesson’
Hilton won’t have to pay the $21 million as they’re subject to a $300,000 cap on punitive damages in federal court. Instead, it will likely face a $800,000 judgment, including $500,000 for emotional damages and $36,000 in lost wages.
Regardless, Brumer and Saenz hope the outcome will serve as a wake-up call.
“I think what we have this verdict for is to teach a moral lesson, more than a financial lesson,” Saenz said. “This is a country that respects religion as one of the foremost respected rights, regardless of what that religion is. And those who not only ignore it but knowingly or recklessly act against it should be punished.”
Brumer agreed, adding he took the case to open up a conversation about religious rights.
” ‘In God we trust.’ It’s what our country was formed on.” Brumer said. ”I told the jury we need to send a message to corporations, big or small, that if you’re going to discriminate against your workers you’re going to be brought into court.”
Hilton intends to appeal the verdict and damages, while the plaintiff plans to move for attorney fees of about $400,000.
Case: Marie L. Jean Pierre v. Park Hotels & Resort Inc., a foreign corporation formerly known as Hilton Worldwide Inc.
Case no.: 17-cv-21955
Description: Religious discrimination and retaliation
Filing date: May 25, 2017
Verdict date: Jan. 14, 2019
Judge: U.S. District Judge Darrin P. Gayles
Plaintiffs attorneys: Marc Brumer, Brumer & Brumer and R. Martin Saenz, Saenz & Anderson
Defense attorneys: Scott S. Allen and Anisley Tarragona, Jackson Lewis, Miami
Verdict amount: $21,536,000
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