As one of Foot Locker's first employees and first Latino managers, Frank Mendez seemed destined for a successful career.
Before that career ended, however, he was subjected to racial slurs at meetings and social gatherings, labeled a "token Mexican," and forced to humiliate himself at an executive sales meeting by taking the role of a "slave," he said.
Eventually, he was fired and sued the company for wrongful termination and discrimination.
Last week, a Los Angeles Superior Court jury sided with Mendez, awarding him a $2.1-million verdict against Foot Locker, the nation's largest athletic shoe specialty chain.
His attorney, Richard A. Love of West Los Angeles, said his client's treatment was part of a "conscious pattern of racial discrimination against blacks, Latinos and women."
Foot Locker officials did not return phone calls seeking comment. But one of the company's attorneys said the chain is considering an appeal. "We disagree with the verdict and don't feel it was justified by the evidence that was presented," said co-counsel Julian B. Bellenghi of Encino, who would not elaborate.
Mendez, now 43, still cries when he describes his experiences years ago.
"It's like a drop on your forehead that never stops," he said in a telephone interview, referring to the alleged racial harassment. "The drops were always hitting me. The hate was always there."
By the time he went to work for Foot Locker as second in command of the flagship Puente Hills store in 1974, Mendez had already worked for its parent company, Kinney Shoe Corp., for seven years. He had joined the company as a part-time salesman while still in school.
His problems began after he married and transferred, at his request, to Minneapolis, his wife's hometown. Within a year he was promoted to district sales manager--becoming the highest-ranking minority in the company, according to evidence presented at the trial. But he was also entering what he describes as a "different world."
At a company dinner, the general manager invited his subordinates to tell jokes about blacks, Latinos and Jews, Mendez said, and other executives chimed in. "I tried to act like I was not there," he recalled. "I quit going to these dinners because it became a standard thing."
In another incident that left Mendez "stunned," the general manager proclaimed at a sales meeting that he was a bigot, saying he did not want minorities working in his stores, according to Mendez.
From then on, Mendez said, his troubles only grew worse, and he was placed on probation. "I was told by my supervisor that I was a token Mexican, that I should learn how to speak the (English) language and that I wasn't too smart," he said.
Despite these indignities, Mendez said, he managed to retain his aplomb until the day his supervisor announced a new plan at a sales meeting. Whichever district manager had experienced the lowest percentage gain for the previous week would have to serve as "slave" for all the other executives, fetching coffee and hailing cabs, Mendez said.
As the supervisor knew, Mendez had that week's poorest record. He said he was told that from that point on, when he wanted to speak, he would have to address the others as follows: "This humble servant begs to be listened to and be heard. Even though he's unworthy, he begs to be heard."
When he was forced to say the words, Mendez's body began to shake uncontrollably and he began to cry, he recalled. "I knew he'd got me," he said, breaking into sobs at the memory. "I knew I couldn't fight him anymore."
From then on, Mendez said, his decline was swift. Demoted from district manager to store manager, he reported to a man who referred to him as a "dumb . . . Mexican" and threatened to shoot him if he questioned any of his business practices. Later, he said, the man pointed a gun at him.
He asked to return to Los Angeles. After five months managing the Foot Locker at the Del Amo mall in Torrance, he was fired. The company said he was not performing well--a reason his lawyer described as a "pretext."
In deciding for Mendez, the jury awarded him $67,500 in lost wages, $15,000 for emotional distress and $5,000 for distress arising from the incident with the gun. The remaining $2 million was for punitive damages.
Mendez, who has now returned to Minnesota, where he sells siding and shingles, feels vindicated. "I couldn't believe that they could do this to people," he said.