Jury begins deliberations in discrimination trial against Nappi Distributors

Mar. 3—A 10-member jury will now decide whether one of Maine's largest beer and wine distributors discriminated against a female employee and later retaliated against her for filing complaints.

Michele Tourangeau filed a civil complaint against Nappi Distributors in January 2020, alleging that the company based in Gorham paid her less than male colleagues because she's a woman. Tourangeau also alleged that Nappi didn't pay her for work she performed while on maternity leave, and retaliated against her for filing a complaint with the Maine Human Rights Commission, which notified her in October 2019 that she had a right to sue.

Nappi has denied all of the allegations of discrimination. The company has not disputed that Tourangeau was paid a lower commission but instead has sought to prove she was paid less because of a companywide policy shift that applied to all new hires, regardless of gender.

The jurors, seven men and three women, are considering a number of claims in this complex case. Deliberations began just before 4 p.m. Friday after a week-long trial.

They are considering whether Tourangeau proved Nappi paid her less than at least one male employee engaged in the same type of work under the same conditions; that Tourangeau's sex, or her pregnancy in 2016, were a deciding factor in any adverse action taken against her; that Tourangeau was not paid for work she performed, and that Nappi benefited from her wages; and that Nappi retaliated against her for engaging in protected activity by filing her complaints.

Should the jury side with Tourangeau, they'll also have to agree on damages — Tourangeau is asking for backpay, at least $77,000 in damages for violations of the Equal Pay Act, and additional compensatory damages to make up for emotional distress and loss of enjoyment of life.

When Tourangeau was hired by Nappi Distributors in 2015, she became the company's first female sales representative. She was offered a 2% commission rate, while her colleagues on the sales team — all men — earned 3%. But when Nappi began reducing her base salary that she made on top of her commission in 2019, the company refused to increase her commission. Tourangeau also alleged that Nappi didn't pay her for work she performed while on maternity leave, and retaliated against her when she complained.

"It is a fundamental American right — it is the American dream — that if you work hard and you bust your butt, you should get paid fairly and be compensated for what you do," said one of Tourangeau's attorneys Laura White during closing arguments. White said Nappi "repeatedly took that opportunity away from her" and retaliated when she spoke out.

Both White and co-counsel Danielle Quinlan, who delivered opening statements to the jury Monday, have referenced a culture of hostility against women at Nappi that underlines a "retaliatory animus of women in this workplace."

But various Nappi officials, including president Frank Nappi Jr. and their human resources director Christine Fox, featured prominently in Tourangeau's complaint, vehemently denied any sexism in their workplace.

Fox said in an August 2020 deposition that she was surprised at the way Tourangeau "distorted" a 2016 meeting over her car.

Tourangeau had just returned to work after taking time off for maternity leave and thought the meeting was retaliation for asking Fox to pay her for work Tourangeau did while she was away. But Fox told attorneys she had been trying for weeks to meet with Tourangeau about damage to the passenger side of Tourangeau's car.

Fox said Tourangeau became "combative" and began crying while filling out the accident report, acknowledging that she had been crying more lately.

Fox said she suggested Tourangeau talk with a primary care provider, based on her own experience with similar issues. When Fox later heard that Tourangeau was telling people that Fox made her cry, she called the allegations "distorted and shocking."

"I think we're all trying to figure out why she feels this way because she's quite successful here and it's — it's just kind of an odd situation, you know, to have a fairly high-performing employee feel so strongly that she's been wronged by us. I think we're all scratching our heads with that," Fox said.

Nappi's attorney, John Wall, said in closing arguments the company decided to pay the 2% commission to all newly hired sales representatives "before Tourangeau was even in the picture." The new rate, and the eventual decision to eliminate Tourangeau's base salary, were meant to control overhead costs and foster more consistency among what sales representatives earn.

Wall said everyone hired since Tourangeau, regardless of gender, has been hired at a 2% commission rate. Her attorneys dispute this, citing one employee who joined the sales team from another department in 2016 and was offered a 2.5% commission.

This story will be updated.