Meredith Boucher began working for Wal-Mart in 1999. She was a
good employee and in November 2008 she was promoted to the position
of assistant manager at the Wal-Mart store in Windsor. Her
immediate supervisor was the store manager, Jason Pinnock.
Boucher and Pinnock had a good working relationship until May
2009 when Boucher refused to falsify a temperature log book at the
suggestion of Pinnock. Thereafter, Pinnock became abusive towards
Boucher. He belittled, humiliated and demeaned her, continuously,
often in front of co-workers. Boucher complained about
Pinnock's misconduct to Wal-Mart's senior management
through the company's "Open Door Communication
Policy." The policy encouraged employees to report on a
confidential basis concerns about how its stores were operated or
its employees treated.
In breach of this policy, Boucher's request for a meeting
with senior management was leaked to Pinnock, who then berated
Boucher and subjected her to "an unrelenting and increasing
torrent of abuse". Despite substantial evidence of
Pinnock's abuse, including first-hand accounts from co-workers
who described Pinnock's treatment of Boucher as
"terrible" and "horrific", Wal-Mart found
Boucher's complaints to be unsubstantiated and notified her
that she would face discipline for making unsubstantiated
complaints. Wal-Mart concluded that Boucher was trying to undermine
Boucher quit after a final incident in which Pinnock forced her
to count skids in front of co-workers to prove that she could count
Boucher brought an action against both Wal-Mart and Pinnock and
the matter was tried before a judge and jury. The jury accepted
Boucher's claim that she had been constructively dismissed and
awarded her damages equivalent to 20 weeks' salary, the notice
period specified in her employment contract. The jury also awarded
$1.45 million in aggravated and punitive damages:
Moreover, the evidence reasonably supports the jury's
finding that Wal-Mart's own conduct was reprehensible. That
evidence, which I reviewed earlier, includes Wal- Mart's
refusal to take Boucher's complaints about Pinnock seriously,
its dismissal of those complaints as unsubstantiated despite
substantial evidence to the contrary, its unwillingness to
discipline Pinnock or intervene to stop his continuing mistreatment
of Boucher, its threatened reprisal against her, and its
contravention of its workplace policies. Although Wal-Mart may not
have deliberately sought Boucher's resignation, on the evidence
led at trial that the jury undoubtedly accepted, Wal-Mart's
actions and its inaction were reprehensible
$1.2 million against Wal-Mart
($1 million in punitive damages and
$200,000 in aggravated damages); and
$250,000 against Pinnock ($150,000 in
punitive damages and $100,000 for intentional infliction of mental
Decision of the Court of Appeal
The Court of Appeal upheld the jury's finding of liability.
The Court condemned Wal-Mart's response (or lack thereof) to
Boucher's workplace harassment complaint, characterizing its
actions and inactions as "reprehensible." The Court
The Court of Appeal upheld all aspects of the jury's award
except for the amount of punitive damages. The punitive damages
against Pinnock were reduced from $150,000 to $10,000 and those
against Wal-Mart from $1 million to $100,000. In the Court's
view, an award of $100,000 was what was rationally needed to punish
Wal-Mart and denounce and deter its conduct.
Take-Away Point for Employers
Employers must be vigilant in enforcing respectful workplace
policies. As the Court of Appeal noted, it is not enough to simply
pay "lip service" to those policies. Employers should be
quick to investigate any potential complaints in a fair, objective
manner focusing on assessing the facts at hand and avoiding hastily
drawn conclusions. This includes adhering to any pre-determined
policy, having impartial investigators, collecting adequate
information and making a decision that is supported by the results
of the investigation.
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