A former employee of Kelly Services, a worldwide provider of temporary workers, was awarded more than $6.5 million in damages Friday by a Sacramento federal jury on her claim that the company failed to promote her because she is not a member of a religious group that other employees belong to.
Lynn Noyes, who worked nearly 10 years for Kelly in Nevada City as a software developer, sued her employer in December 2002, and 17 months later she was laid off.
She claimed that a less qualified employee was promoted to software development manager in April 2001 because he is a member of the Fellowship of Friends and she is not.
Noyes claimed that the Fellowship of Friends is a religious group and that denying her the promotion was intentional reverse religious discrimination.
With approximately 2,000 members, Fellowship of Friends is a church organization founded in the esoteric Christian tradition of Fourth Way, according to its Web site.
Noyes' lawyers, M. Catherine Jones and Robert Burch, presented evidence to the jury that, between 1997 and 2001, there were five promotions to management positions in Nevada City for which she was qualified. Four of those positions went to members of the Fellowship of Friends.
An anonymous letter sent to Kelly's Michigan headquarters in 1999 complained of "unfair practices with respect to hiring, promotions and salaries," such as "promoting employees with lesser qualifications and seniority" because of their religious affiliation.
But, according to evidence presented by Noyes' lawyers, Kelly's subsequent investigation of Nevada City chief William Heinz's hiring and promotion practices failed to result in significant changes.
Evidence presented on her behalf showed fellowship numbers continued to climb until nine of the 15 full-time employees on the floor where Noyes worked were members at the time she filed her suit.
The jury deliberated barely 3 1/2 hours Thursday afternoon and Friday morning before delivering its verdict.
A prepared statement issued after the verdict by Kelly general counsel Daniel T. Lis says: "We believe today's decision was made in error with respect to both the law and the facts in this case.
"We are confident that there are a significant number of grounds on which we will appeal, which we intend to do."
The company's trial lawyers argued that Heinz, who is a Fellowship of Friends member, did not unilaterally promote fellow member Joep Jilesen into the job sought by Noyes. Rather, they argued, the decision was made "through consensus of the Nevada City management and employees."
"Significantly, Kelly first offered the position to Donna Walker, who was not a member of the fellowship, but she declined," the lawyers wrote in a trial brief. "Equally important, Mr. Heinz was initially opposed to - Mr. Jilesen because he was concerned about the appearance of favoritism.
"Ms. Noyes, on the other hand, was not perceived as the best choice to boost the morale of the software development group."
Kelly lawyers insisted the Fellowship of Friends is not a religion, but rather a "philosophical group" that could not be used to sustain a religious discrimination claim.
But the fellowship describes itself as focusing on "an esoteric interpretation of religion associated with teachings of the Old and New Testaments, traceable also in Greek philosophy, and probably originating in Egypt and Asia."
About a third of its members live near or on a fellowship-owned compound in Apollo, a hamlet in San Bernardino County about 40 miles northeast of Barstow. Members are required to donate at least 10 percent of their monthly gross income to the fellowship.
After four days of listening to testimony and viewing the evidence, the jury found that Noyes' "lack of certain religious beliefs was a motivating factor for why she was not selected."
The panel awarded her $647,174 for economic losses, including past and future lost earnings and benefits, and noneconomic losses, including emotional distress.
It awarded her $5.9 million in punitive damages to hold Kelly up as an example and deter it and other companies from discriminatory employment practices.
Kelly pioneered the temporary staffing industry in 1946 and now operates in 37 countries and territories. Its revenue in 2007 was $5.7 billion.