NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
FedEx Corp, the world's largest air-express mail service, was ordered to pay $1.5 million for retaliating against an employee who tried to promote two minority workers, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Wednesday.
The EEOC, which enforces anti-discrimination and other federal employment laws, said in a statement that a federal jury in Orlando, Fla. found that FedEx illegally reprimanded Ted Maines, a 21-year employee who is white, for attempting to promote an African American and a Hispanic to roles as supervisors. Both minority workers were veteran FedEx workers.
The jury awarded Maines $201,000 in back pay and $1.37 million in compensatory damages for his emotional pain and distress. The trial ended Wednesday when the jury decided against awarding punitive damages, another form of penalty that's meant to punish defendants rather than make their accuser whole.
According to the EEOC, an unidentified senior FedEx manager "rebuffed and retaliated" against Maines for his lobbying on the minority workers' behalf in 2001. The senior manager allegedly wanted to promote a recent hire who was white and female.
When Maines complained to FedEx lawyers about what he considered to be discrimination, the EEOC said FedEx officials threatened to fire him by giving him an official warning letter and telling him he would be terminated if he made another "mistake."
The EEOC sued Memphis, Tenn.-based FedEx as a result in September 2002.
It is unusual for an EEOC lawsuit to go trial and most are settled out of court. It was not immediately clear why this case was out of the norm. A FedEx spokeswoman declined to comment on specifics of the case but said the company has asked the judge who presided over the trial to reduce the jury award. Failing that, the company will appeal the verdict, she said.
"We feel that we will prevail on appeal," said Sandra Munoz, the FedEx spokeswoman. "We don't discriminate....Our actions were justified."
Last week FedEx (Research) reported that earnings in the quarter that ended Nov. 30 nearly quadrupled and raised its full-year earnings forecast.
Maines, the employee in the retaliation case that ended Wednesday, said in the EEOC statement released Wednesday that he felt vindicated by the jury's verdict. Federico Costales, the director of the EEOC's Miami office, called FedEx's actions "unfortunate."
"This jury's million dollar verdict sends a strong message to Federal Express and other employers that (the) EEOC will vigorously prosecute employers who (choose) to retaliate against employees who engage in conduct protected by the federal anti-discrimination laws."
The number of retaliation claims filed with the EEOC by workers and job applicants has nearly doubled in the last decade, to 22,740 claims in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, according to agency spokesman David Grinberg.
Retaliation claims are now the third most common discrimination charge filed with the EEOC, behind race and gender allegations, Grinberg said.
Grinberg said there are several possible explanations for the spike, including better awareness by workers of anti-discrimination protections, a 1991 law that permits both compensatory and punitive damages in civil rights employment cases, or increased discrimination by employers.