On March 13, 2020, after a one-week trial, an Anderson County jury returned a verdict of $110,000 in actual and punitive damages to Stephenson & Murphy client, Lisa Styles.
Lisa was the customer service manager at the Pendleton BI-LO, which is owned by Southeastern Grocers. Lisa had a very successful career, progressing from part-time cashier to management. One district manager described Lisa as a “model associate” who was being considered for even higher positions. In late 2017 and early 2018, Lisa complained to two district managers about the behavior of store manager, Mike Brickman. She and other employees also complained in writing to the corporate headquarters in Jacksonville, Florida. Nobody came to the store to investigate the complaints of these employees. Nor were the other employees even interviewed about their written statements.
After Lisa complained, Brickman reported to a loss prevention specialist that Lisa was removing items from the store without paying for them. Brickman even provided the specialist with the dates and times of camera footage showing her doing so. That was all true, and it was all on camera (just as Lisa knew it would be). What Brickman did not report, and what he would never admit to, was that he knew the items were donations for a local charity. A representative of the local charity testified at trial, confirming receipt of the items (Easter baskets and contents). She even produced pictures of little children with the “stolen” items.
Lisa has maintained from the beginning that Southeastern Grocers knew of her complaints, and that she explained everything when detained by the loss prevention specialist and the area HR director, who had previously been told of Lisa’s complaints about Brickman. Lisa also maintained that she asked to leave the meeting in which she was questioned by the two men, but they denied her request. Even when she took a break during the meeting, camera footage showed that the HR director accompanied her outside. Nobody from Southeastern Grocers investigated the fact that the items were a donation to charity, or that this might be retaliation.
While Lisa was still in the office being questioned by management, Southeastern Grocers called the police, who responded to the store in front of all of Lisa’s coworkers and the customers. Brickman told the police that corporate wanted Lisa to be prosecuted. Fortunately for Lisa, the Chief of the Pendleton Police Department investigated the matter fully, including evidence that the charity was involved and that it received the items (notwithstanding Brickman’s denials). The Chief presented Southeastern Grocers’ complaint and all the evidence to the local Magistrate, and they determined there was no probable cause for an arrest. Although that was a good development, the experience was devastating to Lisa, especially the confinement and questioning by management that she endured.
As one would expect, word got around town about the police being called to the store and about Lisa losing her job. Lisa had never been arrested or charged with a crime in her life, and she had never been fired from any job before this. Southeastern Grocers’ treatment of her simply overwhelmed her. And then Lisa decided to fight back.
The jury returned a verdict of $100,000 in actual damages and $10,000 in punitive damages on Lisa’s claim of false imprisonment. Although Southeastern Grocers fired Lisa on the spot (without investigating what she had reported to them), Lisa did find other employment in a challenging and rewarding environment. Many people would have just “moved on” and not risked having to re-live the ordeal. This trial, however, was important to Lisa to clear her name on the record and to take the company to task for an unwarranted detention and questioning that should never have happened. We were proud to stand by her.