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THE INC. LIFE

Chipotle Fired This ‘Valued Employee’ and Offered Her $1,000 to Go Away. Instead, She Sued for Millions — and Won. Here’s the Story

This isn’t just a story about a lawsuit. It’s a lesson about what to do when you’ve been wronged.

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BY Bill Murphy Jr. - 15 May 2018

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

The last time Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. tried to settle this employment case, they offered just $1,000.

Big mistake. Now, they're paying a whole heck of a lot more.

On Friday, a California jury came down hard on the side of ex-employee Jeanette Ortiz, who was fired by Chipotle in 2014, ordering the $1.4 billion company to pay her $7.9 million.

Faced Monday with possible punitive damages that could have ballooned that amount to almost $80 million, Chipotle blinked, and settled the case.

There are a lot employment cases in the courts every day. But I've written about this one before, and I've been amazed to see the positive comments on social media. In short, almost everyone sides with Ortiz, and against Chipotle.

That doesn't usually happen. And, there's one super-important lesson to learn in this whole affair: When you're being bullied, fight back. And if you can't fight back on your own, get a lawyer.

Monday's agreement has a confidentiality provision, so we'll probably never know exactly how much the settlement is for. But, my mildly educated guess is that Ortiz could well have walked away with between two and three times more than she won on Friday.

But even if she settled just for the nearly $8 million she won Friday (which some people might do just to stave off risk of an appeal), and even if her attorney takes one-third, she'll be worth several million dollars, at least.

Something like 8,000 times more than Chipotle was reportedly willing to pay to make the whole thing go away..

The facts here were pretty rough. Both sides agreed that Ortiz, 42, who had worked for Chipotle for 14 years, had been an excellent employee--right up until just before Chipotle fired her.

Chipotle claimed she'd stolen about $600 from a restaurant safe. Ortiz denied the charge, and claimed her former bosses were framing her--in retaliation for her having filed a worker's compensation claim, and then refusing to lie about it when they allegedly asked her to.

Chipotle claimed to have her on videotape stealing the money.

But then, it wouldn't show it to her.

And then, it apparently told the court it no longer had a copy.

And then, according to an account of all this by Pablo Lopez in The Fresno Bee, Ortiz called a witness who testified that he'd seen the cash in an envelope in the store the day after Ortiz was accused of having taken it.

So the jury bought her story over Chipotle's, and you can imagine why.

I could go on about some of the other lessons here:

If you run a business, you need a document retention policy. (Jurors reportedly said afterward that it bothered them that "Chipotle didn't have a corporate policy" on things like this.)

And, if you're going to try to settle a claim, really try to settle it. (I don't know who within Chipotle was actually responsible for the reported $1,000 settlement offer, but in retrospect it looks insulting.)

But that big lesson? Stand up for yourself.

I keep going back to the $1,000 settlement offer. I keep imagining Ortiz, a mother of nine (nine!), being tempted to take it.

And I imagine a bunch of accountants or executives or whoever it was, thinking that she'd probably cave.

But she didn't. She won. And that's why we're writing about her here.

By the way, I reached out to Chipotle for comment. After the verdict Friday, they said they didn't want to comment on pending litigation.

So I asked them again today--pointing out that the litigation apparently isn't pending any longer.

I've heard nothing back. I'll update this if they do respond.

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