A federal jury awarded a former hotel dishwasher $21.5 million after the hotel repeatedly scheduled her to work on Sundays despite her request for time off for religious reasons.
Marie Jean Pierre, a devout Christian and Haitian immigrant, worked for 10 years at the Conrad Miami Hotel until she was fired in March 2016. While it was stipulated in her human resources file early on in her employment that she could take leave on Sundays, she was assigned multiple Sunday shifts in 2015 by a kitchen manager, according to her lawyer.
After initially trading shifts, the 60-year-old Haitian immigrant missed six Sundays to attend Bethel Baptist Church and was fired. After filing a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Pierre sued the Conrad in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida in May 2017.
"The law says if you have a religious belief, the employer has to make reasonable accommodations for you," said Marc L. Brumer, an attorney who represented Pierre, citing the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which bars employers from discriminating against employees based on race, religion, sex or national origin.
"They accommodated her for many years at the Hilton Worldwide. She did the dishes and there were many of them and she could easily be accommodated," Brumer said in an interview.
Hilton: Plans to appeal
Hilton said it plans to appeal the verdict and damages award. "We were very disappointed by the jury's verdict, and don't believe that it is supported by the facts of this case or the law," a Hilton spokesperson said. "During Ms. Pierre's ten years with the hotel, multiple concessions were made to accommodate her personal and religious commitments."
Jackson Lewis, the law firm representing Hilton, did not respond to a request for comment.
Conrad Miami, which is a franchise under Hilton, was ordered to pay $21 million in punitive damages, $500,000 for emotional anguish and $36,000 for lost wages. Hilton generated $3.47 billion in total revenue in 2017.
Pierre isn't likely to receive the full award, however. By federal law, punitive damages cannot exceed $300,000, which the the jury was not aware of. Brumer initially asked the jury for $50 million, hoping to send a national message.
"If it was a small mom and pop hotel, I wouldn't ask that," Brumer said. "We sent a message not just to Hilton Hotels but to every other hotel in America, that you can't just take the blood and sweat of your workers. You have to accommodate."