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Woman Wins Outback Steakhouse Suit

September 19, 2001

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) _ A former employee won a discrimination suit against Outback Steakhouse after complaining the company hired a former Tampa Bay Buccaneer to do the same job and paid him twice as much.

Jurors deliberated five hours before awarding $2.2 million Tuesday to Dena Zechella, who wept when the verdict was announced.

The verdict sends a message to companies that paying women less than men for the same work won’t be tolerated, said officials with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, who helped try the case.

Zechella accused the company of hiring ex-Tampa Bay Buccaneer Steve Wilson as a political favor at her expense.

Zechella worked in Outback’s construction department and said she was ordered to train Wilson as a site development assistant. He later took over her job and was paid $20,000 more than what she was making, Zechella said, and she was moved to a job that was largely clerical but called a promotion. Then she was let go.

Outback founder and chief executive ``Chris Sullivan told everybody that he had an open-door policy, but then he slammed it in her face,″ said Zechella’s attorney, Ryan Christopher Rodems. ``This jury not only opened that door, it slammed it in his face.″

Outback executives denied discriminating, saying Zechella was fired for poor performance and a bad attitude.

``In over 13 years and having had over 100,000 female employees, this is the only case we have ever had alleging pay discrimination,″ Outback’s senior vice president Joseph Kadow said in a written statement.

The company plans to appeal, he said.

Jurors found that Outback violated the Equal Pay Act. They said Zechella, who was fired three years ago, was treated worse than men because of her gender and that Outback retaliated against her for complaining.

The jury awarded Zechella $64,000 in back pay, $50,000 in compensatory damages for pain and suffering, and $2.1 million in punitive damages.

Federal law caps damages to compensate for financial harm and punish an employer’s misconduct at $300,000, so Zechella will receive $364,000 if the verdict stands.

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