Pearl-Clutching Bank May Have Discriminated

     (CN) – A bank may be liable for firing an older manager based on the supposedly egregious remark she made about a flannel nightgown and her ex, a federal judge ruled.
     StellarOne Bank fired branch manager Lenore Linkous in 2011 after the 68-year-old had put in over a decade of service with it and its predecessor, First National Bank, in Blacksburg, Va.
     Linkous had received positive performance reviews for 2009 and 2010, which stated that she “exceeds expectations” and “meets expectations,” respectively.
     The bank began investigating Linkous in 2011, however, after a teller who wanted to transfer branches claimed that Linkous had retaliated against her.
     Employees told StellarOne’s human resources manager, Nancy Mitchell, that Linkous frequently discussed her personal life in the workplace, and that Linkous’ ex-boyfriend, Willie Price, was a recurring focus of these conversations.
     On one occasion, employees said Linkous gave a graphic explanation of how she caught Price having an affair with another woman.
     They also reported that Linkous told a bank customer and friend of hers within earshot of other customers and employees that when she next saw Price she “would wear [her] nightgown, and it won’t be my flannel one.”
     Mitchell recommended that StellarOne terminate Linkous based on her findings, and Vice President Michael Kane affirmed the decision, stating that the nightgown comment was “so egregious that immediate dismissal is appropriate,” rather than a warning.
     Linkous filed suit, claiming that her age was the real basis for the firing. She said the nightgown comment was a harmless, albeit ill-conceived, joke, and that the bank used it as pretext to replace her with someone younger.
     U.S. District Judge Glen Conrad refused to grant StellarOne summary judgment Tuesday.
     “Although the evidence presents somewhat of a close case, the court is unable to conclude that Ms. Linkous has not established her prima facie case,” Conrad wrote.
     He noted Linkous’ positive performance reviews, including one signed by Kane just five months before he fired her.
     The manager who replaced Linkous at the bank also testified that the branch was in great shape when she took over.
     “Although opinions of co-workers are not as pertinent to the analysis as the employer’s own judgment, StellarOne has largely relied on the negative opinions of other co-workers in arguing that Ms. Linkous was not meeting her legitimate job expectations,” the 11-page ruling states.
     Kane told the court that Linkous’ nightgown comment “created an uncomfortable environment in the financial center” and it was “the reason [Ms. Linkous] was let go.”
     But Conrad found that “the fact that just five months before her termination Ms. Linkous received ‘exceeds expectations’ reviews on the same behavioral and leadership qualities that stand as the proffered reason for her termination can reasonably be interpreted as an indication that StellarOne’s justification arose as a pretext for its desire to replace Ms. Linkous with a younger manager.”
     The judge also highlighted StellarOne’s policy to issue a warning for a first-time problem, unless the “employee has done something so egregious that immediate dismissal is appropriate.”
     “A fact finder could reasonably be suspicious of StellarOne’s refusal to offer coaching or additional training to an employee who was until recently so highly regarded, particularly in the areas of her position now being called into question,” Conrad wrote.

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