Court: Open Door Policy Was Bogus

January 31, 2006 ( - The US 1st Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld a lower court's award of punitive damages to a Wal-Mart of Puerto Rico employee who sued the company for being subject to a hostile work environment.

Wal-Mart argued on appeal against the punitive damages award, saying the jury had not been properly instructed on its open-door policy for employee complaints, according to the appellate opinion.   Wal-Mart also said there was insufficient evidence for the jury to award the punitive damage and that the employee failed to mitigate his damages by taking advantage of the company’s open-door policy.

However, the jury in the lower court found that the employee did in fact complain several times to supervisors and upper management, who did nothing.  

Wal-Mart’s open-door policy stated that a complaint need not be in writing and that if an oral complaint is made, “there is a duty to entertain it.”   The appellate court said, “The policy was not put into practice and a jury could easily find it existed only on paper.”

The employee had received a penile implant to correct sexual dysfunction and, as a result, had a semi-erection visible through his clothing.   The employee was the subject of joking and rude comments, sometimes over the store’s public announcement system, for years by supervisors and coworkers.   He eventually resigned due to the mental toll the harassment took on him.

He sued Wal-Mart of Puerto Rico and was awarded compensatory damages of $76,000 and punitive damages of $160,000.

The opinion in Arrieta-Colon v. Wal-Mart Puerto Rico Inc. is  here .