The Southern Standard, by James Clark —
Two women have won a $93,000 gender discrimination lawsuit against the largest Taco Bell franchisee in the South that includes the restaurants in McMinnville and Sparta.
The verdict came last week in federal court in Cookeville when a jury sided with current Warren County resident Katrina Hillis and Warren County native Diana Pepper, who moved to Florida last year.
“It took courage for these women to take a stand against the company they worked for knowing this lawsuit would ultimately lead to them not working there anymore,” said attorney Michael Galligan, who represented the plantiffs along with his law partner, Susan Marttala. “This shows women are still having to fight for their rights in the workplace.”
The lawsuit was not against Taco Bell Corp., but against Brentwood-based Management Resourse Company (MRCO), which owns 82 Taco Bell franchises in the South.
The lawsuit contended that women could be promoted to store manager, but that was the glass ceiling in the corporation. Despite 60 percent of MRCO’s Taco Bell store managers being women, only 15 percent were promoted to upper management.
“The amount of the settlement isn’t significant,” said Pepper. “We just wanted a chance to be promoted and we weren’t getting it.”
She added filing the lawsuit was not easy. “At the time I was a single mom and I needed that job.”
Last August, Pepper moved to Seminole, Fla., to take a job as a store manager working for Taco Bell Corporation. Two weeks ago, she was promoted to area coach, the exact position she sought while working for MRCO.
“For 12 years they said I wasn’t qualified for the position,” said Pepper, who managed McMinnville’s Taco Bell for seven years. “And I get the job I wanted after eight months down here.”
Hillis had worked for two Taco Bell franchise owners since 1988 and helped open the store in McMinnville. She had been the store manager in Sparta from 1999 to shortly after the lawsuit was filed in 2004.
“They wouldn’t even let us know there was a position open,” said Hillis, who is now happily employed at the local Lowe’s. “We thought it would be fair for everyone to know there is a job, these are the qualifications for it, and this is how you apply. But they did none of that.”
Pepper said the last straw came when she won a Golden Bell Award for being a top Taco Bell store manager. At the awards ceremony, she was congratulated by an all-male lineup.
“When I went up to accept my award, I shook hands with 12 men,” said Pepper. “That’s what finally did it.”
Considering it was a gender discrimination case, Galligan made sure Marttala had a prominent role and she was the one who delivered the closing argument. More than anything, Galligan said he hopes the verdict leads to change within MRCO.
“There is a verdict out there that says they discriminate based on sex so I think they will have to change their hiring practices,” said Galligan. “They never had an application process and that led to discriminating results.”
MRCO’s attorney did not return a phone call from the Standard for comment.