Winn-Dixie under Fire for Alleged Religious Discrimination and Retaliation against one of the Grocery Chain’s Long-Term Employees

Client Hopes Trial Attorney Willie Gary and Team are the Answer to her Prayers

Trial attorneys Willie Gary and Larry Strauss of the Stuart, Florida-based law firm of Gary, Williams, Parenti, Watson & Gary, PLLC, are pursuing religious discrimination and retaliation claims against Winn-Dixie Stores, hoping to bring justice to client Shirley Owens. The suit is an effort to expose the alleged discriminatory actions taken by Winn-Dixie against Ms. Owens, an employee at the grocery chain for 18-plus years.

The lawsuit contends Winn-Dixie regularly gave Ms. Owens off on Sundays as a religious accommodation so she could attend services and volunteer at Golden Heights Church of Christ – the Fort Lauderdale church that’s like her second home. In August 2012, Winn-Dixie unilaterally informed Ms. Owens it would no longer offer her the accommodation of having Sundays off, claiming its “business needs have changed.”

If Owens needed every Sunday off, Winn-Dixie’s “business needs” required she give up her full-time, quasi-management position and work part-time as either a cashier or in guest services. After she filed a complaint with the EEOC in October 2012, managers backed off.

The lawsuit reflects Owens was advised to apply for numerous other store positions, encouraged that in doing so, she could obtain another full-time position which would not require Sunday hours. Despite numerous applications, no position could be obtained. Instead, Owens was transferred to her current store – one known for incidents of violence and crime and located in a high-crime area.

By May 2014, however, Owens alleges Winn-Dixie revisited the issue, informing her if she wanted to remain a full-time employee, she must work two Sundays a month on either a morning or evening shift. Having every Sunday off would require she both go part-time and have her hourly wage reduced by more than 25 percent. The case hinges on whether those two choices amounted to a “reasonable accommodation,” the legal standard applied in such religious discrimination cases.  If it was not, the next thing to consider is whether other reasonable options existed, and gauge whether such alternatives imposed an “undue hardship” on Winn-Dixie.  If so, the company could use that as a defense.

“Winn-Dixie was effectively telling Ms. Owens to choose between her job and her God,” commented Willie Gary.  “For her, there is only one choice: God. Winn-Dixie is trying to be the gatekeeper to her worship – to set a timeclock on her faith.”

Gary notes Owens’s religious freedom is a fundamental right founded upon the U.S. Constitution and set forth in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. “Winn-Dixie does not get to judge her beliefs or how long on Sunday she gets to practice them.”

So instead of a full-time Customer Service Lead making $14.25 an hour, in July 2014 Owens became a part-time Customer Service Associate for $10.60 an hour. Though there were no such positions available at the time, Winn-Dixie suggested Owens could apply for other full-time positions which would not require her to work every Sunday. Though she has applied repeatedly, Owens has never been able to obtain another full-time position which does not require her to work Sundays.

At present, Owens continues as a part-time Customer Service Associate. Notwithstanding the reduction in hours worked and hourly wage, her duties mirror those of when she was a full-time Customer Service Lead – notably, finalizing the day’s receipts and closing the store.

“Winn-Dixie cut her pay, cut her hours, and cut her title,” says Gary. “Yet it has her doing the same work. So Winn-Dixie is getting the benefit of Ms. Owens’s Customer Service Lead training and skills, but paying much less for it.”

Attorney Willie E. Gary and team are no strangers to seeking justice.   Mr. Gary and his legal team are known for taking on some of the nation’s most powerful corporate giants. In 2014, a jury awarded Gary an unprecedented $23.6 billion verdict against RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company.  In 1995, a jury awarded Gary and his legal team a record-breaking, half-billion dollars against one of the world’s largest funeral chains, The Loewen Group. In addition, Gary is noted for winning a $240 million jury verdict in Orange County against the Walt Disney Corporation for his clients who alleged that Disney stole their idea for a sports theme park. In 2001, a jury awarded Gary a $139.6 million verdict for the Maris Distributing Company against Anheuser Busch.

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