Jennifer Harris was a rising star, climbing the corporate ranks of delivery giant FedEx from entry-level sales to leading her own team more than a decade later.
So when her supervisor suggested she take a demotion in March 2019, she was frustrated and caught off-guard. When she didn’t step down, the Fort Worth woman said her workplace of 12 years turned discriminatory and then retaliatory.
“That is just when the harassment and different treatment from my peers really escalated and went to the next level,” said Harris, who won what’s been described as the largest-ever jury verdict for a worker suing over racial bias and retaliation.
A jury in Houston awarded her $366 million in late October. Harris, 41, had sued FedEx after being fired for what she said was retaliation for complaining about racial discrimination.
The Memphis-based company said it strongly disagrees with the verdict and plans to ask a federal judge to throw out or reduce the jury award.
“FedEx does not engage in or tolerate retaliation,” the company told The Dallas Morning News in an e-mailed statement. “We followed our protocols for performance management with Ms. Harris and are confident that we acted properly regarding her termination.”
Jurors were nuanced in their decision. Because a unanimous vote was required and a couple of jurors dissented, the company wasn’t punished for racial discrimination.
But all eight jurors found FedEx retaliated against Harris for reporting discrimination allegations to human resources. Nearly all of the $366 million verdict came as punitive damages for the retaliation.
“I believe the verdict that the jury made signifies the issue at hand with discrimination and retaliation in the workplace,” Harris said. “… They need to reevaluate how they investigate complaints moving forward. They need to make sure that their HR professionals, as well as anyone in leadership, are trained properly on the right ways to identify red flags of discrimination and retaliation, and not ignore them.”
The jury arrived at $365 million in punitive damages by examining the value of the FedEx subsidiary where Harris worked, said Elizabeth “BB” Sanford, one of Harris’ lawyers. The subsidiary’s value is more than $744 million.
“They wanted to punish them,” Sanford said. “And so they picked 49% of [the subsidiary’s] net worth.”
In regulatory filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission after the trial, the company told investors that previous court rulings typically capped punitive damages at less than 10 times the compensatory damages awarded. FedEx said in its filing that any payout up to $75 million would be covered by its insurance.
Brian Sanford, Harris’ lead attorney, said he guesses it’ll be six months to a year until an appeal happens and years before Harris sees any money. The Sanfords also represented nine Black workers who won a $70 million racial discrimination verdict earlier this year.
The role of race
Harris said she was singled out from her colleagues by not being allowed to go to company-provided programs that her peers attended. She viewed that and other steps taken by her bosses as an effort to sabotage her performance.
“It was obvious that the determinant factor in the treatment for myself against my white peers was race,” Harris said. “There was no other glaring thing that you could identify to connect the dots on how I was treated.”
Harris started as an entry-level account executive in 2007 and went on to receive six promotions, several awards and relocations for new roles in Houston and Memphis. In 2017, Harris became a district sales manager and began reporting to a managing director.
Her performance was in part measured by her team’s success at meeting annual revenue goals. FedEx’s fiscal 2022 revenue totaled $93.5 billion.
In a March 2019 meeting about Harris’ implementation of a new program designed to improve each sales team’s performance, Harris said she was asked by her white supervisor to take a demotion to a role with no leadership responsibilities.
Over the next few months, Harris filed multiple reports of racial discrimination to human resources. She received a letter complaining about her “unacceptable performance,” a written warning and her termination in early 2020, she said.
In her termination letter, FedEx cited Harris’ revenue performance as the sole reason for her firing.
Harris’ scores, however, were greater than at least one of her white peers, according to court documents.
“The statistics relied upon by the defendant to establish the plaintiff’s failing are direct evidence of disparity in treatment,” wrote presiding Judge Kenneth Hoyt in his opinion.
The judge’s opinion said the case raised an inference that Harris’ race was a factor because her termination letter indicated her firing was solely based on her failure to meet FedEx revenue goals, yet other non-Black employees in similar positions weren’t terminated for the same thing.
After the trial
The stress of a week-and-a-half-long trial took an emotional toll on Harris, she said, as she sat across from her former employer, its attorneys and her ex-supervisor.
“Until you sit in the courtroom as a plaintiff, standing firm on all the evidence that you provide, all the testimony that is given, you can’t really understand what that feels like and the impact that it has on someone forever,” Harris said.
But Harris said she feels like justice has been served. She hopes her case can bring awareness to other workers who may be in similar positions and serve as a warning to big corporations.
“I think the main reason that I continue to fight and will continue to fight is that FedEx, as well as other companies, need to be held accountable,” said Harris, who now works in health care sales. “The law protects us. If we say something, we shouldn’t be retaliated against because we identify an issue within the workplace.
“Where does it stop, if it doesn’t start with FedEx?” she asked.