Infamous Discrimination Lawsuits: 5 Cases That Cost a Fortune


HR Insights for ProfessionalsThe latest thought leadership for HR pros

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Some workplace discrimination lawsuits are so notorious they are hard to forget, but all contain lessons for employers on what not to do.

Article 5 Minutes
Infamous Discrimination Lawsuits: 5 Cases That Cost a Fortune

Discrimination in the workplace can be an ugly thing to witness, let alone fall victim to. People are discriminated against in companies across the world every day, whether it's because of their racegender or any number of other reasons their co-workers and bosses might choose to feel superior to them.

However, sometimes the victims opt to speak up and take on the culprits of discrimination in a bid to fight back. What's more, that course of action is becoming increasingly common. According to a report from Good Jobs First, a staggering 99% of Fortune 500 companies have been forced to pay settlements in at least one discrimination or sexual harassment lawsuit since 2000, suggesting workers are increasingly turning to the legal system to hold their bosses accountable.

Most never get made public, but there have been occasions where those who have been discriminated against have sued their employers for significant sums of money - and they have resulted in some of the most infamous discrimination lawsuits ever.

Here, we'll round up just a handful of the most famous court battles between employers and wronged employees.

1. Race: Abdallah v Coca-Cola, 1999-2000

Drinks giant Coca-Cola was sued in 1999 by a group of plaintiffs led by Motisola Malikha Abdallah, who claimed it had been racially discriminating against black workers since 1995.

They claimed African-American members of the workforce had routinely been paid less than their white counterparts and had found managerial-level roles unavailable to them. Statistics were even provided to the court showing that the median salary for black employees was around a third less than that for whites.

Although Coca-Cola refused to admit any wrongdoing, it agreed in 2000 to a $192 million settlement, the biggest ever seen in a corporate racial discrimination case. The company was also forced to make a raft of changes to its personnel policies and procedures to ensure this type of racial discrimination never happened again.

2. Age: Jolly v the NHS

Age discrimination hit the headlines in the UK in 2017, when an 86-year-old secretary named Eileen Jolly was fired by Britain's National Health Service because she failed to upload details of cancer patients awaiting non-urgent breast reconstruction surgery into a new database.

Her bosses let her go, claiming that she had become stuck in her “old secretarial ways” and was no longer suitable for the job.

However, Eileen took her former bosses to court based on the dismissal and on other remarks made within the workplace concerning her age and alleged frailty. Her lawyers also argued she had not been adequately trained on new computer systems because of her age.

At the age of 89, Eileen became the oldest person in Britain to win an age discrimination claim and walked away with a £200,000 ($272,200) settlement.

3. Pregnancy: Glasson v Google

Pregnancy-related lawsuits are on the rise, with Bloomberg Law predicting there could be a new record of 400 cases lodged for 2022 by the end of the year.

One that is still ongoing is that relating to Chelsey Glasson, who sued Google in 2019 amid claims she was denied a managerial role and had comments made about her health issues after becoming pregnant with her second child.

Google continues to aggressively deny the 38-year-old's claims and has pitted a team of top lawyers against her to defend itself.

Although the outcome of the case has not been decided at the time of writing and so there is no outcome in terms of a settlement, it’s likely that Google's reputational damage has already been significant.

This is somewhat ironic given that Google's foundation in the 1990s was built on free thinking, an obligation to dissent and the invitation for employees to bring their whole selves to work.

4. Sexual harassment: Alford v Aaron's

One of the most infamous sexual harassment lawsuits occurred in the US in 2006, when furniture rental company Aaron's Inc was sued by a former employee named Ashley Alford.

She claimed to have been the victim of a campaign of unwelcome sexual advances and requests for sexual favors from her store manager Richard Moore for some time before taking the company to court.

Although Alford reported the harassment to the chain's owners, they failed to act and Moore finally attacked her and performed a sexual act over her in a stockroom.

Deciding that Aaron's failed to take steps to safeguard Alford, a court awarded her $95 million in compensation.

5. Disability: Perkl v Chuck E Cheese

It might be some time ago now, but few cases of disability discrimination can be as infamous as that of Donald Perkl versus the pizza chain Chuck E Cheese in 1999.

Perkl, who had autism and cognitive disabilities and communicated via picture cards, was employed by the brand for custodial duties in their Wisconsin branch.

However, when a new store manager arrived and fired him amid declarations that Chuck E Cheese did not employ "those kind of people", a lawsuit swiftly followed.

Incredibly, Chuck E Cheese tried to appeal on the grounds that, since Perkl was "retarded" he could not have been emotionally harmed by the dismissal. Unsurprisingly, the courts did not agree and Perkl was awarded $10,000 in back pay, $70,000 compensatory damages and $13 million in punitive damages, the largest sum ever for a breach of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

How to prevent discrimination in your workplace

Employers are legally required to prevent discrimination in the workplace, and the cases above prove that failing to do so can be costly.

As part of this, people should never be treated differently based on their:

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Pregnancy
  • Race
  • Disabilities
  • Religion
  • Sexual orientation

As an employer, you can help to ensure discrimination doesn't happen by:

  • Providing regular diversity training
  • Having a clear complaints procedure in place
  • Regularly updating equality policies
  • Holding meetings with employees to flag up problematic behavior

Unfortunately, discrimination does still happen in businesses across the globe every day. But by keeping equality in mind and taking the appropriate preventative measures, you can hopefully ensure these unsavory incidents aren't taking place at your company.

HR Insights for Professionals

The latest thought leadership for HR pros

Insights for Professionals provide free access to the latest thought leadership from global brands. We deliver subscriber value by creating and gathering specialist content for senior professionals.


Join the conversation...