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Edwards v. Compass Bank

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Southern Division

December 9, 2019

MELISSA EDWARDS, Plaintiff,
v.
COMPASS BANK, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          R. DAVID PROCTOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This is an employment discrimination case in which Plaintiff Melissa Edwards claims that Defendant Compass Bank[1] discriminated against her because of her race (Caucasian) and retaliated against her in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, and 42 U.S.C. § 1981. (Doc. # 14). Specifically, Plaintiff claims that Defendant failed to promote her because of her race and, after she filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), it retaliated against her by continuing to refuse to promote her, by disciplining her, and terminating her employment. (Doc. # 14).

         The case is before the court on Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment. (Doc. # 20). The Motion has been fully briefed (see Docs. # 21, 24, 26) and is ripe for review. After careful review, and for the reasons explained below, the court concludes that Defendant's Motion is due to be granted.

         I. Background[2]

         In 2004, Plaintiff began her employment with Defendant as a “Talent Partner II” at a “salary grade”[3] of 18. (Doc. # 14 at 3, ¶ 12). Plaintiff started out working in the East Retail line of business. (Doc. # 22-1 at 16).[4] At that time, Linda McQueen was the Director of Talent and Culture Solutions for Defendant. (Doc. # 14 at 6, ¶ 31; Doc. # 22-17 at 3, ¶ 1). McQueen later asked Plaintiff to move to the Risk line of business, which Plaintiff preferred. (Doc. # 22-1 at 16). Thereafter, Plaintiff received high praise for her work with Risk: “[Plaintiff] is precise; she always returns [our] phone calls and emails; she is professional; she is knowledgeable . . .; she appears to have good working relationships with other departments. Bottom line . . . we are very pleased with her involvement.” (Doc. # 22-10 at 64).

         In March 2016, McQueen was replaced as Director of Talent and Culture Solutions by Janel Taylor, a young, African-American female. (Doc. # 14 at 6, ¶ 31; Doc. # 22-17 at 3, ¶ 1). When Taylor took over the position, Plaintiff informed her that she was seeking a same-seat promotion.[5] (Doc. # 22-1 at 23). Same-seat promotions typically occur in the months of May and November. (Doc. # 22-12 at 17; Doc. # 22-17, at 3). Taylor denied Plaintiff's 2016 request for a same seat promotion because she had just assumed the job, she was still assessing the team, she was not familiar with the budget, and she had not had time to assess anyone's performance. (Doc. # 22-11 at 13; Doc. # 22-17 at 2-3, ¶¶ 2-7).

         In June 2016, the Securities and Exchange Commission conducted a cyber-security audit of Defendant that uncovered the failure by employees to timely “key” (i.e., input) employee terminations in Defendant's “NETprofile” system, which opened Defendant up to a security risk. (Doc. # 22-18 at ¶ 5; Doc. # 22-17 at ¶ 14). Those individuals continued to have access to the bank's confidential data, including customer data, following the termination of their employment. (Id.). Therefore, Taylor began emphasizing to Talent Partners the need to key in terminations as soon as possible. (Doc. # 22-17 at ¶ 14).

         On or about November 3, 2016, Defendant posted a job for which Plaintiff applied. (Doc. # 22-1 at 24-25; Doc. 23-3 at 24). However, because the position was initially incorrectly posted, it was taken down and reposted. (Doc. # 22-3 at 24). Taylor informed Plaintiff that, to be considered for this position, she would need to reapply and interview for the position with her (Taylor) and a panel. (Doc. # 22-1 at 30-31). Not every candidate who applied for this position was interviewed. (Doc. # 25-8 at 14). As Taylor testified, “[i]f they were an HR candidate who possessed the minimum years of experience, there would have been an interview with me. And if they were passed -- if they got past that round with me, they would have done a panel interview with their peers, and then I would have chosen someone based on the panel interview.” (Doc. # 25-8 at 14). Plaintiff points out that when employees received same seat promotions or changed lines of business, they were not required to interview. (Doc. # 22-1 at 31).

         In 2016, Taylor promoted Tasha Hardy, a Caucasian female, to a grade 20 salary level because the line of business Ms. Hardy was in -- mortgages -- was restructured.[6] (Doc. # 22-11 at 15; Doc. # 22-17 at 4, ¶ 11; Doc. # 25-8 at 7, 15). This move did not implicate incentives which would have impacted the budget. (Doc. # 22-17 at 4, ¶ 11).

         On March 20, 2017, Defendant announced the creation of the U.S. Talent & Culture Project-Based Organization (“PBO”). (Doc. # 22-3 at 26-27). Adrianna Quevedo-Price became the manager of the PBO. (Doc. # 22-17 at 4, ¶ 8). Plaintiff and two other Talent and Culture employees, including Orazio Mancarella, were selected for the PBO. (Doc. # 22-3 at 26-27). Quevedo-Price and Rosilyn Houston, an African-American who is the Chief Talent and Culture Officer, were involved in making that decision. (Doc. # 22-1 at 17). David Keith served as the project manager for Plaintiff's first “long-term incentive program” in the PBO (see id.), and Quevedo-Price became Plaintiff's direct supervisor. (Doc. # 22-17 at 4, ¶ 8).

         While Plaintiff was with the PBO, her pay grade stayed the same (18), and she received variable compensation, including bonuses and benefits. (Doc. # 22-1 at 20). This occurred even though an employee at pay grade 18 generally does not receive variable compensation. (Id.).

         In or around May 2017, Adriana Quevedo-Price promoted[7] Orazio Mancarella, who worked in the PBO with Plaintiff, to a grade 20 salary level. (Doc. # 22-17 at 4, ¶ 10). Mancarella received this promotion because he was the “Scrum Master” (the leader who defined the methodology) for his project. (Id.).

         In May 2017, a vacant Talent Partner position was posted. (Doc. # 22-17 at 5, ¶ 13). Candidates were required to apply for this position, which also required an interview. (Id.). Taylor promoted Brittany Hatcher, an African-American female, to this grade 20 position that had been previously held by Robyn Black. (Doc. # 22-11 at 15; Doc. # 22-17 at 5, ¶ 13). This was not a same-seat promotion, and Plaintiff did not apply for the position. (Doc. # 22-17 at 5, ¶ 13). Additionally, Plaintiff was ineligible for the position because it was in the engineering line of business, and Plaintiff did not work in that area. (Doc. # 25-8 at 15; Doc. # 22-17 at 5, ¶ 13).

         On June 3, 2017, Plaintiff filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC alleging race and age discrimination with respect to Plaintiff's consistent expressions of interest in “advancing her career with [Defendant]” by “repeatedly express[ing] a desire to be considered for promotion or same-seat promotion to a higher pay grade.” (Doc. # 14-1 at 2). Specifically, Plaintiff asserted that the African-American candidates with less experience than she had received the promotions. (Doc. # 14-1 at 2).

         In June 2017, a vacant grade 20 salary level position whose client base included corporate clients, such as the Legal and Compliance Departments, was posted. (Doc. # 22-17 at 4, ¶ 12). Candidates were required to apply for this position. (Id.). Tammy Fincher, an external African-American candidate was hired. (Doc. # 22-1 at 30; Doc. # 22-17 at 4, ¶ 12). Fincher had prior experience in human resources with corporate clients. (Doc. # 22-17 at 4, ¶ 12). Plaintiff did not apply for this position. (Doc. # 22-17 at 4, ¶ 12).

         In approximately September 2017, Plaintiff was moved from the PBO back to East Retail. (Doc. # 25-10 at 35). On September 17, 2017, Taylor's employment with Defendant ended. (Doc. # 14 at 6, ¶ 31; Doc. # 25-8 at 11).

         On November 7, 2017, Reba Simmons, an African-American hiring manager for Defendant, selected Patricia Osborne, an African-American female, as the new Director of Talent and Culture Solutions. (Doc. # 14 at 6, ¶¶ 32-33). Before replacing Taylor, Osborne had been a Talent Partner who worked with Plaintiff in Human Resources. (Doc. # 25-6 at 4).

         On or about November 15, 2017, Defendant posted Osborne's prior position. (Doc. # 14 at 7, ¶ 41; Doc. # 25-10 at 37). Plaintiff applied. (Id.). At around this time, David Keith, a Caucasian male who had moved to PBO with Plaintiff, approached Simmons and asked to get back his job supporting retail and commercial. (Doc. # 25-10 at 37). On December 18, 2017, Simmons selected Keith to fill the position. (Doc. # 14 at 7, ¶¶ 41, 44-45; Doc. # 25-10 at 37-38). Simmons chose Keith because “Keith had done the job before, he was knowledgeable, [and] it made good sense to transition him back into the role.” (Doc. # 25-10 at 38).

         In January 2018, Plaintiff was promoted to salary grade 20 through a same-seat promotion. (Doc. # 22-10 at 6-7). Krista Pettus -- an African-American who was also at grade 18 salary level -- was also promoted to grade 20. (Doc. # 22-1 at 19; Doc.# 22-10 at 7; Doc. # 25-8 at 9). Osborne requested a same seat promotion for both Pettus and Plaintiff. (Doc. # 22-10 at 7). Plaintiff became the Talent & Culture Partner over the East region of the Retail line of business. (Doc. # 22-18 at 4, ¶ 9).

         On January 22, 2018, Krista Pettus received an e-mail from Jennifer Polnett regarding an employee, Laurie Little, who was to be terminated from the system because she had been out on leave for 180 days. (Doc. # 22-5 at 30; Doc. # 22-6 at 8; Doc. # 22-1 at 47). Pettus replied to the e-mail and copied Plaintiff. (Doc. # 22-6 at 8). Pettus wrote “I have copied [Plaintiff] on this email now that she is the new partner. Melissa, I have notes in Felix.” (Doc. # 22-6 at 8; Doc. # 22-18 at 4, ¶ 10). Polnett then e-mailed Plaintiff directly informing Plaintiff that “Laurie Little would have to be processed out of the system in netprofile. She reached [] 180 days being out on leave.” (Doc. 22-6 at 10; 22-18 at 4, ¶ 11).

         On February 13, 2018, Osborne e-mailed several Talent Partners, including Plaintiff, regarding untimely keying of terminations into Defendant's computer system, emphasizing that it was a “top priority.” (Doc. # 21 at 10, ¶ 51; Doc. # 22-5 at 9).

         On February 22, 2018, Plaintiff was notified that Ms. Little, the subject of the January 22, 2018 e-mail correspondence, had passed away. (Doc. # 22-5 at 30; Doc. # 22-18 at 4, ¶ 12).

         On March 22, 2018, after Plaintiff was notified a second time that Ms. Little should have be terminated from the system, Plaintiff finally terminated Ms. Little from the system. (Doc. # 22-5 at 30; Doc. # 22-10 at 14-15; Doc. # 22-18 at 4, ¶ 13). However, because Plaintiff had not timely keyed Ms. Little's termination, “her beneficiaries were not sent the appropriate paperwork to properly convert her life insurance policy, [resulting] in a loss of life insurance benefits in the amount of $89, 000.” (Doc. # 22-5 at 30; Doc. # 22-10 at 14-15; Doc. # 22-18 at 4, ¶ 14). Defendant bore the $89, 000 loss. (Doc. # 22-5 at 30; Doc. # 22-18 at 4, ¶ 14).

         During 2018, Plaintiff was recognized for her good performance and kindness. On February 16, 2018, Plaintiff received a Special Thanks and Recognition (“STAR”) award (which included a $3, 000 payment). The award was initiated and approved by Osborne. (Doc. # 22-10 at 9; Doc. # 22-5 at 9). On April 11, 2018, Plaintiff received an Aspire card (a sort of “kudos”) from another employee whom Plaintiff had helped through a challenging situation. (Doc. # 22-10 at 60-61; Doc. # 25-6 at 8).

         On May 14, 2018, Plaintiff filed this lawsuit. (Doc. # 1). She continued her employment with Defendant after that filing.

         On July 19, 2018, Osborne reached out to Plaintiff because Osborne was responding to an audit inquiry about Ms. Little's insurance benefits. (Doc. # 22-1 at 47). Osborne was required to explain why Ms. Little's termination was not keyed in until March 2018, even though Defendant had been notified on February 22, 2018 that Little was deceased. (Doc. # 22-18 at ¶ 15). Osborne and Plaintiff met to discuss the matter. (Doc. # 22-5 at 28; Doc. # 22-18 at 5, ¶ 16). Osborne informed Plaintiff that legal counsel had been engaged to determine if there was any insurance coverage for the $89, 000 loss. (Id.).

         Osborne also reached out to Pettus regarding Little's situation. (Doc. # 22-10 at 15). Pettus supplied Osborne with the e-mail correspondence (on which Plaintiff was copied) regarding the situation. (Doc. # 22-10 at 15-16). Pettus confirmed that the Little matter had been passed on to Plaintiff in light of the change in their responsibilities. (Doc. # 22-18 at ¶ 18).

         Thereafter, Osborne met with Reba Simmons about the appropriate discipline for Plaintiff. (Doc. # 22-18 at ¶¶ 19-20). In light of the financial loss, Osborne viewed only two options: a “probation exception to termination” or termination. (Id.). Simmons thought Plaintiff should be terminated. (Id.). Osborne recommended a “probation exception to termination” because she did not want to terminate Plaintiff. (Id.).

         On August 1, 2018, Osborne issued Plaintiff a “Probation Exception to Termination” which placed Plaintiff on a 90-day probationary period. (Doc. # 22-18 at ¶ 21; Doc. # 22-5 at 30). The Memorandum notifying Plaintiff of her probation exception explains that “[t]he $89, 000 loss is excessive and typically warrants termination of [] employment.” (Doc. # 22-5 at 30). Plaintiff signed the Memorandum, but noted that she would “submit a statement of events [] by close of business.” (Id.). On August 7, 2018, Plaintiff provided Osborne with various e-mail correspondence regarding Little's FMLA/LTD status. (Doc. # 22-6 at 3-24; Doc. # 22-5 at 30; Doc. # 22-1 at 47).

         On August 9, 2018, Plaintiff received an e-mail from one of the managers to whom she provided human resources support. The e-mail indicated that an employee, Alondra Espinosa, had given her two-weeks notice. (Doc. # 22-18 at 4, ¶ 14). Shortly afterward, Plaintiff received another e-mail informing her that Espinosa changed her mind and decided to quit immediately. (Doc. 22-1 at 59-60). That e-mail asked Plaintiff to “key in her resignation for today.” (Id.).

         Plaintiff testified that she thought that there was “no rush” to terminate Espinosa from the system and waited to get further information before processing the termination. (Doc. # 22-1 at 60). Plaintiff testified at her deposition that, at that time, she was not aware that employees were not removed from data access until their termination was keyed in the system. (Id.). Plaintiff did not key Espinosa's termination in the system until August 23, 2018. (Id.).

         On August 22, 2018, Osborne was notified by the Data Security Department that Espinosa had not been terminated from the system. (Doc. # 22-18 at 6, ¶ 25; Doc. # 22-10 at 21-22). Osborne looked in the Felix system and determined that Plaintiff was the responsible Talent Partner and directed her to terminate Espinosa from the system. (Doc. # 22-10 at 22; Doc. # 22-18 at 6, ¶ 25).

         Plaintiff was planning to terminate Espinosa on August 23, 2018, the end date of the original two-weeks' notice. (Doc. # 22-1 at 61). At 9:56 that morning, Plaintiff received an e-mail from Data Security asking why Espinosa's termination had not been entered. (Doc. # 22-10 at 22; Doc. # 22-1 at 61). By that time, Plaintiff had already entered Espinosa's termination. (Doc. # 22-1 at 61).

         Osborne met with Plaintiff on August 23, 2018, to discuss why Espinosa's termination had not been keyed into the system in a timely manner. (Doc. # 22-18 at 6, ¶ 26; Doc. # 22-7 at 34-35). Osborne told Plaintiff that workload was not an excuse, but allowed Plaintiff an opportunity to explain why she had not terminated Espinosa earlier. (Doc. # 22-1 at 62; Doc. # 22-10 at 22; Doc. # 22-18 at 6, ¶ 26). At 4:53 p.m. on August 23, 2018, Plaintiff sent Osborne an e-mail stating:

You asked for a follow up email with my justification as to why the Alondra Espinosa resignation on 08/09/18 was not timely keyed.
You communicated that the work load is not an excuse that you could accept because you were doing the job of 3 people currently, at this time I do not feel any reason that I provide you would be acceptable.
Again, I want to communicate that I am not the only T&C employee what is guilty of this type of error or other administrative errors within T&C.

(Doc. # 22-7 at 32).

         Simmons asked Osborne to terminate Plaintiff's employment because Plaintiff committed an offense similar to that for which she had just recently been placed on probation. (Doc. # 22-18 at 6, ¶ 27). On August 1, 2018, Plaintiff had been placed on Probation as an exception to termination for failing to terminate an employee in a timely fashion which resulted in an $89, 000 loss to the bank. (Doc. # 22-10 at 99). At that time she was warned to “comply with the standards in place to terminate employees in a timely fashion.” (Id.). Within nine (9) days of being placed on Probation, Plaintiff again failed to timely ...


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