Independent Contractor Issue Generates $11M Jury Verdict

December 12, 2002 ( - Cosmetics giant Mary Kay got slapped with an $11.2-million jury award for firing a sales manager disabled with breast cancer who the company claimed was an independent contractor.

A lawyer for plaintiff Claudine Woolf said the judgment handed down by a Dallas jury, which he said was the first in the US, will help extend workplace rights typically reserved for employees to sales contractors, according to a National Law Journal report.

“This verdict means the 920,000 alleged independent contractors working for Mary Kay have their civil rights,” lawyer Joseph Alioto told the Law Journal, without clarifying to what extent this case applies to other companies.

The National Law Journal article presented this case background, based on court documents:

Woolf, who began selling Mary Kay products in 1995, was honored two years later for putting together a 50-person sales organization at the age of 27. She stopped selling cosmetics and began managing her sales group full time.

Woolf learned in March 1997 that she was pregnant. Two weeks later she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. Doctors told her that she required a mastectomy followed by chemotherapy that could kill the fetus or cause birth defects and would probably make her sterile.

Woolf and her husband chose to continue the pregnancy. Although she gave birth two months prematurely, she and the baby are now healthy.

Plaintiff ‘Sick, Bald and Pregnant’

Although Woolf was, according to her description, “sick and bald and pregnant,” she continued running her sales operation from her hospital room, but could not meet sales quotas. According to plaintiff’s documents, Woolf called Mary Kay headquarters in September 1997 asking for a reprieve from the sales goals.

Mary Kay managers denied the request and a month later took away her company car.

Woolf filed suit in Contra Costa County, California in 1998, claiming that she had been wrongly fired because of a medical disability. Mary Kay had the case moved to Dallas where it is headquartered.

After a two-week trial, the jury found that Woolf was a Mary Kay employee, not a contractor, and the company “acted with oppression or malice” by refusing to accommodate her illness.

The case is Woolf v. Mary Kay Cosmetics, No. 00-5612-J (Dallas Co., Texas, Dist. Ct.).