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Westmoreland v. TWC Administration LLC

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

May 22, 2019

GLENDA W. WESTMORELAND, Plaintiff - Appellee,
v.
TWC ADMINISTRATION LLC, d/b/a Time Warner Cable, Defendant-Appellant.

          Argued: March 21, 2019

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of North Carolina, at Statesville. Max O. Cogburn, Jr., District Judge. (5:16-cv-00024-MOC-DSC)

         ARGUED:

          Catrina Celeste Creswell, KABAT CHAPMAN & OZMER LLP, Atlanta, Georgia, for Appellant.

          Todd J. Combs, COMBS LAW, PLLC, Mooresville, North Carolina, for Appellee.

         ON BRIEF:

          Joseph W. Ozmer II, KABAT CHAPMAN & OZMER LLP, Atlanta, Georgia, for Appellant.

          Before GREGORY, Chief Judge, and NIEMEYER and MOTZ, Circuit Judges.

          DIANA GRIBBON MOTZ, Circuit Judge:

         After TWC Administration, LLC, d/b/a Time Warner Cable ("TWC"), fired Glenda Westmoreland, she filed this action, alleging that the company would not have done so but for illegal age discrimination. Following a three-day trial, the jury found for Westmoreland, and the district court denied TWC's motion for judgment as a matter of law. TWC now brings this appeal, principally contending that Westmoreland failed to present sufficient evidence to justify the jury verdict. But, as we have often held, once a jury has evaluated witness credibility, weighed evidence, and reached a verdict, a litigant seeking to overturn that verdict faces a steep hurdle. Because TWC cannot overcome that hurdle, we affirm.

         I.

         Although several facts were disputed at trial, in reviewing a district court's denial of judgment as a matter of law ("JMOL"), we "must draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party." Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 150 (2000). Thus, we "review the record as a whole" but "must disregard all evidence favorable to the moving party that the jury is not required to believe." Id. at 151. "We also must assume that the testimony in favor of plaintiffs was credible, unless totally incredible on its face, and ignore evidence to rebut it." Duke v. Uniroyal Inc., 928 F.2d 1413, 1419 (4th Cir. 1991). Applying these principles to the evidence presented to the jury - including the testimony of Westmoreland, four TWC supervisors, and two current or former TWC employees - the facts are as follows.

         Summit Cable, a predecessor of TWC, hired Westmoreland in May of 1985. Westmoreland, an African American woman, worked for Summit and its successor corporations for more than 30 years until TWC fired her in August of 2015. At that time, Westmoreland was nearly 61 years of age. During her three decades of employment, Westmoreland performed well, committing just two minor infractions prior to July of 2015.

         In late 2013 and early 2014, TWC shifted its focus from customer service to sales. As part of this transition, the company implemented new expectations for record-keeping and quantitative metrics. Management assigned Westmoreland to a role that required her to interact more with customers and document her supervisory actions in detail. Westmoreland also shifted from working under the direct supervision of Dianne Carroway to the supervision of a new person transferred from New York, Janis Busgith.

         After this transition, Westmoreland struggled to timely conduct and document newly mandated one-on-one meetings with her subordinates. However, her overall performance remained satisfactory. For example, in Westmoreland's 2014 performance evaluation, TWC rated her as "successfully meets expectations" overall and in every specific category except "grow[ing] and develop[ing] your associates," where it rated her "partially meets expectations" and noted her continued improvement. TWC increased Westmoreland's salary in February of 2015 consistent with, and as a result of, this evaluation.

         Westmoreland testified that on July 21, 2015, she conducted a one-on-one meeting with a substantially younger subordinate named Jennifer Sherrill. Six days later, on July 27, Westmoreland met again with Sherrill to complete a form memorializing the July 21 meeting. When Sherrill dated her signature on the form July 27, Westmoreland whited out this date and asked Sherrill to write July 21, reflecting the date of their meeting. After Sherrill changed the date, Westmoreland emailed Busgith the altered form.

         Days later, Busgith held "skip-level meetings" in which she met with Westmoreland's subordinates, including Sherrill, outside of Westmoreland's presence. Busgith directed Westmoreland to take the day off, which Busgith had never done before. In their meeting, Sherrill told Busgith that Westmoreland had asked her to alter the date next to her signature. Busgith reported this to Lauren Newcomb, a human resources generalist at TWC, who then investigated the matter. Jon Knotts, the regional human resources director, took a supervisory role. Busgith retrieved the altered document, reviewed it with Newcomb and Knotts, and observed the white-out.

         In early August, Newcomb and Busgith spoke with Westmoreland and asked her about the white-out issue. Westmoreland explained that although she did not complete the one-on-one form on July 21, she had completed the one-on-one meeting with Sherrill on July 21, and this was why she had asked Sherrill to change the date Sherrill had initially placed on the form. According to Westmoreland, Busgith told her "not to worry about it" and indicated that this discussion amounted to "just a slap on the wrist."

         Westmoreland heard nothing further until August 14, when Dianne Carroway came to her office and met with her unexpectedly. Newcomb joined by phone. Westmoreland did not know the reason for the meeting. When Carroway stated that Westmoreland had directed Sherrill to change the date on a document, Westmoreland agreed that she had. Carroway then told Westmoreland that TWC was firing her, citing company policy that "[f]alse statements . . . may result in termination of employment." Carroway signed the termination paperwork as Westmoreland's "Supervisor/Manager." She did not provide Westmoreland with a copy of the termination paperwork.

         In addition to Carroway, three other TWC officials were involved in the termination. Busgith initiated the decision; Knotts approved it; and Newcomb drafted the documentation of it. All three testified that TWC did not fire Westmoreland because of any fault in her performance. Instead, the company's sole justification was that Westmoreland had instructed Sherrill to change a date on one form and sent that form to management, raising "a lot of trust and integrity issues."

         Busgith, Newcomb, and Knotts also testified that company policy permitted TWC to impose lesser sanctions, but TWC nevertheless opted to fire Westmoreland because of the "trust and integrity issues" raised by the backdated form. All four officials - Busgith, Carroway, Newcomb, and Knotts - testified that they had no other issues with Westmoreland's "integrity" during her three decades of work for TWC and its predecessors.

         After delivering the firing decision to Westmoreland, Carroway gathered Westmoreland's belongings and escorted her out of the building. While walking to Westmoreland's car, Carroway stated, "Oh, girl, you don't have nothing to worry about. You'll get another job. Just go home and take care of those grandbabies." TWC chose one of Westmoreland's subordinates, a 37-year-old, to replace her. The company did not take any disciplinary action against Sherrill, who was then 43 years of age.

         In addition to Carroway's statement, Newcomb acknowledged that she knew Westmoreland was "older," and Knotts conceded that he "could assume . . . by looking at them" that Westmoreland's replacement was younger. Although Busgith initially denied knowing Westmoreland (then over 60) was older than her (37-year-old) replacement, Busgith, too, ultimately testified that this age difference was apparent.

         Westmoreland timely filed suit against TWC. She alleged that the company discriminated against her on the basis of race and age in violation of federal and state laws, including the Age Discrimination in Employment Act ("ADEA"). 29 U.S.C. §§ 621-34.[1] At the first trial, the court granted TWC's oral motion for JMOL on the race discrimination claims; a jury hung on the age discrimination claims, and the district court declared a mistrial.

         In a re-trial solely on the age discrimination claims, the district court denied JMOL and a jury awarded Westmoreland a total of $334, 500 in damages. TWC then renewed its motion for JMOL, arguing that Westmoreland had presented insufficient evidence to recover, that a "summary charge" the court gave to the jury was inaccurate and prejudicial, and that the court's questioning of ...


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