Employee claimed discrimination at Arcadia, Pasadena stores

Rite-Aid was ordered Tuesday to pay $4.8 million to a Covina woman as punishment for store supervisors who committed disability discrimination and retaliated against her for complaining that she was sexually harassed by a manager.

A Los Angeles Superior Court jury deliberated for about a half-hour before reaching its 10-2 verdict in favor of 45-year-old Maria C. Martinez. The same panel awarded her $3.4 million in compensatory damages on Friday, then triggered a punitive damages phase by finding malice on the part of the drug store chain. The total award is $8.2 million.

The jury found one of Martinez’s supervisors at the Arcadia store, Kien Chau, liable for intentional infliction of emotional distress and ordered him to pay her $50,000. However, he was not individually liable for any punitive damages.

Martinez, weeping, said Tuesday’s award was “social justice.”

“I didn’t deserve this (mistreatment),” she said. “I was a good employee. All my customers said so.”

Her attorney, Carney R. Shegerian, was pleased with the verdict.

“It’s been a very long ordeal for her,” he said. “I’m glad the system worked.”

Martinez and her family no longer do business with Rite Aid and go to CVS for their medical needs, Shegerian said.

Defense attorneys maintained Martinez had a poor work history under numerous bosses. She argued with supervisors and received a written warning in 2005 for counseling a customer on using her medication, a task limited by law to pharmacists, according to the attorneys.

They said she was fired for her poor work performance and for having a bad attitude.

Attorney Thomas C. Hockel, on behalf of Rite-Aid, on Monday urged jurors not to award punitive damages, saying they had already sent the chain store a strong message with the compensatory award.

Martinez sued Rite Aid in November 2008. According to her court papers, she began working as a Thrifty Drug store employee in November 1983 and was fired in August 2007 while working for Rite Aid, which acquired Thrifty in 1998.

She said she received praise for her work during the first 20 years, but in 2003 began having symptoms of a psychiatric illness that required her to take disability leaves of absence, according to her court papers.

Martinez said she suffered a work-related anxiety attack while working at one of Rite Aid’s Pasadena stores in 2004 and had to take five months off work. When she returned, she was constantly reprimanded and harassed by her supervisors and called a “basket case,” she said.

She also said the company also began transferring her from store to store without appropriate reasons.

Martinez said that after being moved to the Arcadia store, her boss there falsely accused her of giving medicine to a customer. He also called her “bipolar” and “crazy,” she said.

Martinez said the same supervisor and other employees within the store discounted her claim that a Rite Aid district manager inappropriately touched her when she encountered him at a Bank of America outside of work hours in December 2006.

Rite Aid’s human resources department did not take sufficient action against the district manager when she made a complaint against him, Martinez alleged.

Martinez also worked at Rite Aid stores in Altadena and Azusa, according to Rite Aid’s court papers.

Publicly traded Rite-Aid has about 4,800 stores nationwide and is the third-largest pharmacy chain in the country.