When Marie Jean Pierre was hired, she warned her employer that her devout Christian faith prevented her from working on Sundays. For years, that wasn’t a problem.
As NBC News reports, the 60-year-old woman from Miami, Florida worked as a dishwasher at the Conrad Miami, a luxury hotel that is part of Park Hotels & Resorts, formerly known as Hilton Worldwide.
When Pierre began working at the hotel more than ten years ago, she explained that she wouldn’t to be able to work on Sundays and requested she not be scheduled for that day.
The mother-of-six was born in Haiti and is a member of the Soldiers of Christ Church, a Catholic missionary group dedicated to helping the poor. As she explained to NBC 6, she dedicates her Sundays to church and God:
“I love God. No work on Sunday, because Sunday I honor God.”
For years, the hotel worked with her to accommodate her faith. When she was scheduled to work on a Sunday in 2009, she offered to resign, but the hotel rearranged the schedule so she wouldn’t quit.
Six years later, things changed. A kitchen manager wanted Pierre to work on Sundays and started scheduling her on that day. For a short time, Pierre was allowed to swap shifts with other coworkers so she could get Sunday off, but eventually, that stopped.
In March of 2016, Pierre was fired for unexplained absences, having missed a series of scheduled Sundays. She sued the company under the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination based on race, religion, national origin, or sex.
Marc Brumer, Pierre’s attorney, explained to NBC 6 that his client had been pushed into being fired by the hotel:
“They accommodated her for seven years, and they easily could have accommodated her, but instead of doing that, they set her up for absenteeism and threw her out.”
He added that Pierre brought the suit to make a statement about religious faith and the workplace:
“She’s a soldier of Christ. She was doing this for all the other workers who are being discriminated against.”
A federal jury agreed. On Monday, she won her suit and was awarded $35,000 in back wages, $500,000 for emotional anguish pain and mental anguish, and $21 million in punitive damages.
Because there is a cap on punitive awards in federal court, Pierre is unlikely to receive the $21 million. But the money is not the point.
Brumer told NBC News he thinks Pierre will end up getting about $500,000: “I asked for $50 million, knowing that I was capped at $300,000. I didn’t do this for money. I did this to right the wrongs.”
A spokesperson for Hilton told NBC News that they were disappointed with the verdict:
During Ms. Pierre’s ten years with the hotel, multiple concessions were made to accommodate her personal and religious commitments. We intend to appeal, and demonstrate that the Conrad Miami was and remains a welcoming place for all guests and employees.
Brumer told NBC 6 they brought the case because they were hoping to establish a standard for how workplaces respect the religious obligations of their employees:
“This was not about money. This was about sending a message to other corporations whether big or small. Whatever size you are, if you’re going to take the blood and sweat of your workers, you better accommodate them or let them at least believe in their religious beliefs.”