Gay Costco Employee Wins $420K for “Hostile Work Environment”

I’ve been reading about this story as the lawsuit went to court but did not post about it until today:

LOS ANGELES A jury Wednesday awarded a Costco employee more than $400,000 for working in what they called a hostile work environment.

The jury said Juan I. Valera was also retaliated against for being gay and HIV-positive.

The Los Angeles Superior Court jury deliberated about 2 1/2 days before finding that Valera, who is on leave from his job as a photo manager, suffered under a hostile work environment.

However, the panel rejected his claims that he was the victim of sexual orientation discrimination; that Costco failed to provide accommodations for his needs; or that the company acted with malice.

“This was a big verdict for us,” said Valera’s attorney, Leo J. Terrell. “It sends a message to Costco management that they better wake up.”

Terrell said his client might file further litigation because he is
still a Costco employee and was never returned to his original position.

It’s disappointing to see Costco, which is supposed to be so good to its employees, have such a black mark on its reputation. The case seems pretty clear cut. Here’s what happened, at least according to guy’s lawyer:

According to Terrell, after more than 20 years at Costco, everything changed for his client when a new general manager, John Weaver, arrived at the Inglewood location in 2005 and casually used the word “queers” in a statement. Wilcox denied that such a statement was ever made.

Valera took a leave of absence because of the stress, and upon his return asked the assistant general manager to protect him from further insensitive remarks, Terrell said. A day later, Valera claimed his work load was doubled and his pay was cut.

Valera was forced to take a second stress leave and was demoted to cashier, Terrell said. He also eventually was stripped of his benefits, according to his attorney.

In May 2006, the woman who replaced him as photo manager, Elaine Ponce, filmed what was supposed to be a training video. It depicted fellow Costco employee Kenneth Ellison mimicking Valera and calling him “Auntie Juan,” Terrell said.

The tape reportedly begins with Ellison stating to another employee, Carlos Taylor: “Carlos, I have a dilemma; next Friday is my Auntie Juan’s bar mitzvah. He is a transsexual.”

Terrell told jurors there was no doubt the co-workers were making fun of
Valera in the video.

But Wilcox said the three workers merely made the video to illustrate a scenario in which a Costco employee asks for time off on short notice.

After Weaver was shown the video, he demoted Ponce and one of the other
employees involved, Wilcox said.

I don’t know about all that “stress leave”, but when the employees are making a video calling the guy “Auntie Juan” and talking about transsexuals, and the Costco lawyer tries to make the argument that the workers were just making a training video, it’s kind of unbelievable. I’ve never seen a corporate training video with a lot of talk about transsexuals named Auntie Juan going to their bar mitzvahs, but maybe my workplace is a little more conservative than most. (I don’t think so!)

I don’t know exactly what I think Costco should have done, but I do wonder whether they should’ve tried to settle with this man instead of having a trial. That video seems like a real smoking gun to me.


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