A racial discrimination and retaliation lawsuit has been filed against Coca-Cola Company and its Group Director of Political Strategy & Advocacy and Public Policy & Government Relations departments, Jennifer Zinicola. The claim was filed by Hope Field, an employee of Hispanic/Colombian descent who alleges that as her supervisor, Zinicola created a hostile work environment and retaliated against her, and that the company failed to act on her complaints and wrongfully terminated her in violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination.

According to Ms. Field, she was hired by Coca-Cola in 2018 by its Office of Lattin Affairs, which was later dissolved during a company-wide reorganization. Having received numerous company accolades, positive reviews, and performance bonuses, she was retained as an employee and transferred to the Public Policy & Government Relations Team as Senior Manager. From March 2021 through the end of the year, she reported to three different supervisors, ending with Ms. Zinicola, who was named Group Director of her department in August.

By December 2021, Ms. Field’s alarm at the mistreatment and behavior directed at her caused her to contact the Director of Human Resources to file a complaint. At that time, her specific concerns surrounded inappropriate remarks that Ms. Zinicola had made regarding race and ethnicity, including to some of the company’s national and non-profit partners. Just two months later she was placed by Ms. Zinicola on a performance improvement plan (PIP), which Ms. Field believes was in retaliation for her complaint. She returned to Human Resources regarding the PIP and asked that it be removed, but her request was denied.

Based on this, Ms. Field requested a meeting with the Director of Human Resources and an Employee Relations Consultant, but her concerns were dismissed and she was told that the PIP would move forward, though the timeline might be adjusted if she demonstrated progress. No such adjustment was ever made, and an investigation of her complaint reportedly found no evidence of retaliation or wrongdoing.

To manage the tasks imposed by the PIP as well as her long-standing job responsibilities, Ms. Field worked long hours and endured significant stress and physical pain. At the same time, she continued to endure further demands, criticism, and blame for others’ shortcomings despite demonstrating that the problems she was being blamed for were not her doing.

Despite significant challenges, Ms. Field completed the work that she had been assigned and presented it to Ms. Zinicola and Human Resources with a PowerPoint presentation and accompanying documentation. While she received positive feedback from others, Ms. Zinicola withheld comment, and shortly thereafter informed her that she would not receive a bonus for her work in 2021. This was a significant departure from previous years when she had received numerous bonuses and accolades from both internal and external stakeholders. Shortly after being notified that she would receive no bonus, she found herself locked out of the company’s phone and computer system and was informed that she was being terminated for failure to meet the expectations of the PIP plan. No further information was provided other than that her health benefits would expire that day.

In response to these behaviors by her supervisor and the company, Ms. Field filed her lawsuit, which accused both Ms. Zinicola and Coca-Cola of creating a hostile work environment in violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination; retaliation in violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination; and wrongful termination in violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination and of Piercev. Ortho Pharmaceutical Corporation, which protects against termination for protected activities such as whistleblowing or informing Human Resources of inappropriate and demeaning comments.

In response to the claim, which was filed in Hudson County Superior Court, Coca-Cola has removed it to federal court in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey based on diversity of citizenship.

We will be monitoring the case closely. If you or someone you love has been the victim of this type of hostile environment, retaliation, or wrongful termination based on being in a protected class, our experienced employment attorneys can help. Contact Schorr & Associates today to learn more.