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Ross v. Franklin County Board of Public Welfare

United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Roanoke Division

March 27, 2017

SUBRENNA ROSS, Plaintiff,
v.
FRANKLIN COUNTY BOARD OF PUBLIC WELFARE, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Hon. Glen E. Conrad Chief United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Subrenna Ross filed the instant action pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, 29 U.S.C. §621, et seq. This matter is currently before the court on defendant's motion for summary judgment. For the reasons stated, the motion will be denied in part and granted in part.

         Factual and Procedural Background

         The following facts are either undisputed, or, where disputed, are presented in the light most favorable to Ross. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986).

         Plaintiff Subrenna Ross is a 50-year-old African-American woman. She has been employed with the Franklin County Board of Public Welfare (the "Board") and Department of Social Services (the "Department") since July of 1994. After several years, Ross was promoted to the position of self-sufficiency supervisor. She was the only African-American supervisor, and she kept the self-sufficiency supervisor position until December 3, 2013, when she was demoted to self-sufficiency worker. Ross was reinstated to the position of self-sufficiency supervisor in late 2015.

         The Board's Human Resources Manual provides for three types of office offenses: Group I, the least severe, Group II, and Group III, the most severe. See Administrative/Human Resources Manual for LDSS, Docket No. 91-5 at 41. The policy sets out the various disciplinary procedures for each type of offense. Id. at 46-47. Two Group II offenses within a three-year time period will result in a written notice and termination. A Group III offense will result in | termination. Id. The supervisor may take into account relevant mitigating factors in determining the disciplinary action to take. Id.

         In April of 2011, the Board hired Deborah Powell to serve as director of the Department. At that time, the majority of the employees were Caucasian. Powell Dep. 120:7-8, Docket No. 91-1. During Powell's tenure, many of the older workers left. Ross alleges that they were replaced with younger workers. Ross Dep. 30:18-24, Docket No. 91-4. Powell was Ross' direct supervisor until November 1, 2013, when the Board promoted Anita Turner to the position of assistant director. Powell Dep. 10:23-15:17. Once Turner took this position, Turner supervised Ross.

         In March of 2013, Powell issued Ross a Group II Written Notice, suspending Ross for four days. The Written Notice indicates that Ross directed an employee to ignore certain policies in relation to a benefits program administered by the Department. See LDSS Written Notice Form March 3, 2013, Docket No. 91-2 at 48. On October 5, 2013, Ross married a Caucasian man. Powell attended the wedding and knew prior to the wedding that Ross' husband is Caucasian. Ross Dep. 8:11-9:2.

         On October 18, 2013, Franklin County sponsored an employee appreciation luncheon, to which Board employees were invited. A group of employees from a unit Ross did not supervise went to the luncheon, which was located off-site, leaving their unit unstaffed. When the employees returned to the building, Ross told them that they should not have left their unit I unstaffed. Powell Dep. 40:1-16. According to Powell, there is no policy that a unit cannot leave together, provided there is coverage in the building. Id. 39:8-16. Employees later expressed to their supervisors that they felt that Ross had handled the situation inappropriately. Id. 44:7-11.

         Ross took leave for her honeymoon in early November. At some point in time, Powell I met with the other Department supervisors. Typically, these meetings included Ross. Powell I Dep. 55:11-22. At this meeting, the supervisors informed Powell that their employees had complained about Ross' behavior in regards to the county luncheon. Powell then instructed the supervisors to have employees contact Powell directly with any complaints. Id. at 54:15-19.

         After November 7, 2013, Powell received several complaints regarding Ross' treatment of other employees. Id. 43:6-22. Powell initiated a formal inquiry into these complaints, following up with the complaining employees personally. Id. 53:5-14. On November 15, 2013, Powell suspended Ross so that she could complete the investigation. Id. 31:6-8. During this inquiry, Powell received information from at least ten different employees regarding Ross and the luncheon incident. See Docket No. 91-2 at 1-25. Written emails to Powell indicate that employees "felt like Subrenna was greatly stepping over her boundaries . . . [and] was very unprofessional." See Docket No. 92-2 at 2. Many employees expressed that they were intimidated by Ross and asked Powell not to disclose their complaints for fear of backlash from Ross. Id. at 5.

         However, one employee, Beulah Faye Brown, stated that she was coerced to "go against Subrenna to try to get her to lose her job." Brown Dep. 9:22-24, Docket No. 103-5. Brown testified that Kathleen Miles, a supervisor, tried to tell Brown what to say about Ross. Id. 12:17- 19. Brown further testified that Miles attempted to coerce others to speak poorly about plaintiff, but they refused to do so. Id., 14:20-23. Defendant notes that Brown conceded that when she first | met Ross, Brown felt intimidated by her. Id. 41:1-2. However, Brown also testified that she felt intimidated by Ross because of the things Miles said about Ross. Id. 41:4-24.

         Thelma Doss, another employee at the Department, declared that she never experienced issues with Ross while they worked together, nor could she recall others complaining about Ross or feeling like they were intimidated by her. Dec. of Thelma Lane Doss, Docket No. 103-7. Powell testified that Doss "relayed to me that she was forced to partake in [watching plaintiffs wedding video]." Powell Dep. 50:9-16. Doss later asserted that she does "not recall watching Ross' wedding video . . . [or] any issues surrounding a wedding video." Docket No. 103-7. An African-American employee supervised by Ross testified that she had no problems with Ross. Arlaine Bryant Dep. 6:7-8, Docket No. 91-8. Powell also conceded that she received no complaints about Ross from any African-American employees. Powell Dep. 50:22-51:1.

         Ross asserts that after she returned from her honeymoon, "everything just changed." Ross Dep. 9:22. For example, Ross testified that there was an accusation that Ross kept her door to her office closed. Other Caucasian supervisors would keep their door closed and not hear complaints I about it. Ross Dep. 16:1-9. Ross also testified that she heard, from another employee, Maryanna Haines, that Brown had called Ross an "angry black woman." Id. 119:6-20. Ross further recalled a conversation she had with Linda Nesbit, another Department employee, in which Nesbit asked why Ross had been with the Department for so long without getting promoted. Ross then pointed to her skin. Ross testified that Nesbit's response was ...


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