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Linkous v. Stellarone Bank

United States District Court, Fourth Circuit

June 4, 2013



Hon. Glen E. Conrad, Chief United States District Judge

This case involves an action filed pursuant to the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”), 29 U.S.C. § 621 et seq. The plaintiff, Ms. Lenore Linkous, claims she was fired from her position with the defendant, StellarOne, because of her age. The defendant has filed a motion for summary judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. The court finds that the plaintiff has demonstrated a genuine dispute over whether her age was the “but for” cause of her termination, and will deny the defendant’s motion.

I. Factual Background

In October of 2000, Ms. Linkous was hired by First National Bank as the Branch Manager for the Bank’s 601 North Main Street location in Blacksburg, Virginia (“North Main”). StellarOne was formed on May 27, 2008 out of the merger of First National Bank and Virginia Financial Group, Inc. Ms. Linkous continued in her role with StellarOne until she was fired on August 24, 2011, at which time she was sixty-eight years old.

Ms. Linkous worked successfully with the company for a number of years, receiving performance reviews for the years 2009 and 2010 stating that she “exceeds expectations” and “meets expectations, ” respectively. In August, 2011, however, Melia Wright, a teller at North Main, filed a complaint with StellarOne’s Human Resources Department against Ms. Linkous. Ms. Wright complained that Ms. Linkous was retaliating against her for having applied for a position at another StellarOne branch.

The complaint was handled by Nancy Mitchell, Senior Human Resources manager for StellarOne. In response to the complaint, Ms. Mitchell, along with Lisa Cannell, StellarOne’s Chief Human Capital Officer, initiated an investigation into Ms. Linkous’ performance. As part of her investigation, Ms. Mitchell spent five days interviewing employees at the North Main Branch. It is StellarOne’s position that the information uncovered during the investigation led to Ms. Linkous’ termination. First, a number of employees told Ms. Mitchell that Ms. Linkous frequently discussed her personal life while at work. The bulk of these discussions involved Ms. Linkous’ ex-boyfriend, Willie Price. The employees reported that Ms. Linkous spoke with them about how she had caught Mr. Price having an affair with another woman. Ms. Wright stated that Ms. Linkous explained the scene to her in very graphic terms. Additionally, several employees informed Ms. Mitchell of a specific conversation concerning Mr. Price that Ms. Linkous had with a customer in the lobby of the bank. The customer, a friend of Ms. Linkous’, asked her when she would next see Mr. Price. Ms. Linkous responded that she would probably see him the following week when she went to feed the cat of a friend who lived nearby. In the presence of the customer and her subordinate employees, Ms. Linkous stated that when she saw Mr. Price she “would wear [her] nightgown, and it won’t be my flannel one.” (Linkous Dep. 76:11-17.) Ms. Linkous acknowledges making this comment. StellarOne contends that, as a result of the information uncovered during Ms. Mitchell’s investigation, [1] Ms. Mitchell and Ms. Cannell made the decision to recommend that Ms. Linkous be terminated. The two took their recommendation to Michael Kane, the ultimate decision-maker in the matter. After reviewing the investigation results, Mr. Kane accepted the termination recommendation. Mr. Kane stated that the deciding factor was the inappropriate nightgown comment that Ms. Linkous made in front of customers and co-workers. Although StellarOne has an employee disciplinary policy which provides that most first-time problems should be handled through warnings and/or additional training, the policy contemplates immediate termination when “the employee has done something so egregious that immediate dismissal is appropriate.” (Cannell Dep. Ex. 4.) Mr. Kane has stated that he felt the comment warranted immediate dismissal.

The plaintiff takes issue with the defendant’s characterization of her job performance. First, she points to the positive performance reviews she received for the years 2009 and 2010, the second of which was signed by Michael Kane only five months before the termination. The 2010 review resulted in an overall rating of “meets expectations.” The reviews evaluate employees on five specific performance goals: Business Development, Sales Process, Operations, Core Values, and Leadership/Management. Ms. Linkous received “exceeds expectations” scores in the Core Values and Leadership/Management categories. The results sections for these categories included comments such as “Lenore has been building . . . the Blacksburg Team. She is the face of StellarOne in Blacksburg and is highly respected, ” and “Lenore completes all assignments in a timely manner. She leads by example everyday.” (Docket No. 29-3, at 7.) The 2009 review earned Ms. Linkous an “exceeds expectations” overall rating, reflecting such positive feedback as “[Lenore] lives up to delivering the finest service in Blacksburg, ” and noting her “positive leadership” in helping to relocate another branch while still managing North Main.

Next, while acknowledging that the nightgown comment demonstrated “poor judgment, ” she explains it as a harmless joke told among good friends. Additionally, Ms. Linkous asserts that Ms. Mitchell’s report greatly exaggerates the amount of time that was spent on personal matters. She has submitted affidavits of previous StellarOne employees who have attested to Ms. Linkous’ proficiency in running the branch. Former colleagues Joyce Gray and Christine Lewis testified that Ms. Linkous performed the position of branch manager admirably, and Molly Prater, who took over the branch manager position at First Main following Ms. Linkous’ termination, has stated that the branch was in great shape when she started and that the staff was sad that Ms. Linkous had been fired.

Ms. Linkous also points to comments made by a previous CEO of StellarOne, which she contends evince a desire to replace older employees with younger workers. Christine Lewis, a former StellarOne employee, testified that Bill Heath, the Chairman of the Board of the company at the time, stated in a meeting sometime prior to January 2011 his belief that the bank needed to find someone younger and more attractive for the office’s front desk position. Rickie Phillips, another former employee, stated that he overheard Mr. Heath say that he would like to put a younger face on StellarOne. This comment occurred sometime before May 2008.

Finally, Ms. Linkous notes that Ms. Mitchell conducted investigations of at least four StellarOne Financial Center Managers in 2011, all of which ended in a recommendation of termination. Ms. Linkous observes that the four terminated managers were all over the age of forty.

II. Discussion

A. Standard of Review

A moving party is entitled to summary judgment “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A genuine issue exists “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). In evaluating whether a genuine issue exists, courts must construe all facts and ...

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