Jottings By An Employer's Lawyer

Friday, April 21, 2006

Confess, Then Sue - Employee Gets $7.5 MDV

While my headline correctly sets out the facts, it is a little more complicated than that as the San Diego Tribune website story, Wrongly accused in theft, worker awarded millions, points out. Unlike many trial reports -- this one has a lot of details, although it does sound as if it were written with input from the employee's side of the story, not the employer (understandable given the outcome).

Joaquin Robles, an AutoZone employee of just under a year was called into the back office and accused of stealing $840 that was missing from a bank deposit. After being interrogated for 2 hours and 40 minutes he confessed. The details of that session:
Jara, the [the regional loss prevention manager], had a black bag on the floor from which he pulled a video camera and a couple of VHS tapes, Robles said. It was evidence against Robles, Jara said. When Robles asked to watch the tapes, Jara refused. And he wouldn't let Robles leave the room, Robles said.
Jara, who is still employed by AutoZone, told Robles he would have him arrested and that he'd spend two or three years in jail. If Robles confessed, however, he would keep his job and be allowed to pay back the money from his paychecks. Robles said he was held in the manager's office for two hours and 40 minutes, and, figuring he had no other option, he confessed.
Robles was suspended. When he returned to work he was fired and the $840 was taken from his last paycheck. According to Robles' lawyer the store manager said she received a voice mail from a bank teller two weeks after Robles confessed that the same amount of money had been found.

Apparently the key to the jury's apparent anger was the company's loss prevention manual which gave detailed steps to how to handle such cases. Among the items reported in the story to be in the manual were:
  • the interview setting can psychologically aid an investigator;
  • props such as bulging files, snapshots and videos add credibility to an interview and should be placed in plain view;
  • interrogators main interviewing tactic: RPM, which stands for “rationalize why, project blame and minimize the offense.”

This was the second trial of this case, as both sides had appealed after an earlier trial in which the company had escaped liability and the jury found that the individual manager should pay $73,150 in compensatory damages and $5,000 (a stipulated amount) in punitive damages.

AutoZone will certainly appeal and Robles seems to understand my procedure professor Pappy Jones' admonition that "there is no cash register at the back of the courtroom." When asked what he would do with the jury award he answered that "unless I have it in my hands, I don't want to make plans." What is sure to make AutoZone cringe in hindsight is how he concluded the statement, “I only wanted my last paycheck.”

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