Black gym employee says she was fired after calling out racism. A jury awarded her $11.3 million.
After she was hired by the high-end Equinox gym in 2018, Röbynn Europe, a Black personal trainer, was quickly promoted to oversee a group of 15 employees. But soon, she alleges, a White employee created a "toxic atmosphere" by repeatedly making vulgar comments about Black women's bodies as well as objecting to her being his boss.
Europe's employment didn't last long. Less than a year after starting at Equinox, she was fired — and the reason for the termination was the crux of a lawsuit she filed in 2020.
She alleged she faced discrimination due to her race and gender, and that she lost her job because Equinox retaliated against her for calling out racism and sexism at the club. The gym claimed she was fired for arriving late 47 times during her 11 months at the company. While a judge dismissed her claim of retaliation last year, the case continued, focused on the issues of race and gender bias.
Earlier this month, a jury of five women and three men sided with Europe, awarding her $11.25 million in damages, a verdict that includes $10 million in punitive damages against the gym, according to court records.
Millions of employees face toxic workplaces, which can reduce employee performance and impact a worker's personal life, according to the Harvard Business Review. According to Europe's lawsuit, her experiences at Equinox allegedly demoralized her, caused her "substantial emotional distress" and exacerbated her bulimia.
"The jury sent a loud message to Equinox that there are serious consequences for corporations that permit racist and sexist behavior in the workplace," said Susan Crumiller, an attorney for Europe, in a statement.
She added, "We are also pleased that the jury found Equinox's racism had a severe and lasting impact on Röbynn's mental health and that she deserved to be compensated for it."
After the jury's award, the judge ordered both sides to meet with a magistrate judge to discuss a settlement.
In a statement emailed to CBS MoneyWatch, Equinox said it doesn't tolerate discrimination "in any form."
It noted, "This is a case of termination for performance related to attendance, and nothing more." Equinox added, "[W]e vehemently disagree with the jury's finding, as well as the unjust and excessive award, and have filed a motion seeking to have the judge overturn the jury's decision."
Equinox is known as a tony gym, with more than 100 locations in cities ranging from New York City to San Francisco. Memberships can cost several hundred dollars a month, with amenities like "Eucalyptus steam rooms" and high-end juice bars.
Europe worked at Equinox's location on East 92nd Street on Manhattan's Upper East Side, the same location with the employee who allegedly made racist and sexist language. Europe complained to the company about his remarks, but, her lawsuit alleges, "rather than address and fix those issues, they targeted [Europe] for reprisals."
The retaliation allegedly came in the form of being cited for lateness. Europe didn't deny she came in late, but noted that other workers frequently did the same and weren't reprimanded. Her lawsuit claimed she "was never late for a training appointment with a client, never kept a client waiting, and regularly stayed an hour or more past the end of her shift regardless of what time she had arrived."
The man who allegedly made the sexist and racist comments was among those who "regularly arrived at work well after their official start-times without consequence." The lawsuit also claimed that the employee "often left work early without repercussion."
That prompted Europe to believe she "was being singled out for selective enforcement of time and attendance policies in retaliation for having engaged in legally protected activities," the lawsuit claimed.
Just months after she complained about the club's toxic work environment, Equinox fired her, citing her lateness as its reason, the claim says.
The trial included "swipe-in data" from other Equinox workers that showed that other managers had worse time and attendance records than Europe, although she was the only worker who was disciplined, her attorney stated.
In addition to the $10 million in punitive damages, the jury awarded Europe $1.25 million in compensatory damages and $16,000 in economic damages representing back pay.
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