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A former bank manager who was fired for having a shouting match with a teller in front of customers had no valid race or sex discrimination claims, the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland ruled.
SunTrust bank hired Jared Wright, a black man, as branch manager of its Crofton Safeway branch in Gambrills, Md., in April 2013. Wright's supervisor was Ginger Siegel, who is white. Siegel was executive vice president for SunTrust's Retail In-Store Division from March 2013 through May 2015. Siegel's office was located at SunTrust's Atlanta headquarters, and Siegel and Wright communicated mostly by telephone. When they met once in person at a conference in Baltimore, Wright claimed, Siegel gave him a half-hearted handshake and looked at him in a way that made him feel that she somehow hated him.
Sometime after Wright became branch manager, he hired Audria Pindell as a bank teller. In early December 2013, Pindell missed work for a vacation without prior permission from branch management. When she returned, Wright issued a written corrective action against her. Wright alleged that, in addition to taking time off without management approval, Pindell had erroneously blamed her failure to timely return to work on a flight cancellation.
In response to Wright's corrective action, Pindell contacted Lauren Schultz, a member of SunTrust's teammate relations, to complain about the written corrective action. Schultz informed Pindell of SunTrust's employee dispute resolution procedure for appealing the corrective action, and on Dec. 18, 2013, Pindell submitted her appeal papers. Pindell also complained to Schultz that Wright refused to provide her with a copy of the written corrective action and that Wright had yelled at her loudly in front of clients to go home after she refused to e-mail the combination to the branch's safe to a new employee, Steven Parsley, who was starting that day. Schultz contacted Wright regarding these allegations, and he denied them. Schultz instructed Wright to provide Pindell with a copy of the written corrective action.
On Dec. 20, Wright, Pindell and Parsley were again working at the branch together. Despite Schultz's instructions, Wright did not give Pindell the corrective action document. Instead, he began collecting information to challenge Pindell's appeal of the corrective action. Wright asked Pindell via e-mail whether management had approved her vacation absences on Dec. 10 or 11 of that year, "yes or no." Pindell responded "no."
An argument ensued in the teller area, in front of about five customers, in which Wright shouted so forcefully at Pindell to leave that spit got in her hair. Pindell claimed that Wright yelled "Shut your mouth" and "Get the hell out of my branch," leaving Pindell feeling "shaken up." A client who witnessed the argument later e-mailed Siegel raising concerns about Wright's capabilities as a branch manager and stating that Wright exhibited a lack of professionalism.
SunTrust subsequently investigated the argument, placing Pindell on administrative leave during the investigation. Based on the findings, on Jan. 13, 2014, Siegel called Wright to inform him that he was terminated. SunTrust provided him with a memo stating that he violated the company's code of conduct by not treating clients and teammates with dignity and respect and by showing poor client service, poor managerial judgment and leadership incompetence.
Wright filed suit in state court alleging race discrimination and sex discrimination in his discharge in violation of the Maryland Fair Employment Practices Act. The case was removed to federal court, and SunTrust filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that Wright could not establish discrimination and that it had legitimate reasons for its decision.
[SHRM members-only toolkit: Managing Equal Employment Opportunity]
Wright claimed that a white female assistant bank manager had been disciplined, but not fired, for a significant conflict of interest and that another black male manager had been wrongfully fired from another branch. The court found, however, that Wright had not presented any evidence that SunTrust was inconsistent in how it had disciplined similarly situated managers or that his discharge evidenced discrimination.
Wright v. SunTrust Bank, D. Md., No. RDB-15-3985 (Feb. 16, 2017).
Professional Pointer: Even in instances of significant misconduct, an employer must carefully investigate the facts, determine the impact of the employee's actions on others and the functioning of the workplace, and document its findings. An employer must also make sure that it remains consistent in its discipline of employees.
Jeffrey Rhodes is an attorney with Doumar Martin in Arlington, Va.
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