W.Va. SC: Firing of supervisor was justified

Jessica M. Karmasek Nov. 8, 2010, 3:22pm

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (Legal Newsline) - The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals last week reversed a circuit court's ruling that an in-state company discriminated against and wrongfully terminated one of its employees.

The Court, in its opinion filed Friday, found that the Hancock County Circuit Court erred in determining that Bellofram Corporation, otherwise known as Marsh Bellofram Corporation, had discriminated against the appellee, Lynda Young, based on her age and gender.

Bellofram, headquartered in Newell, manufactures a variety of products and employs about 500 people.

Young began her employment with Bellofram in 1994 as a molder. She progressed to senior molder, master molder and then lead molder.

In June 2004, at the age of 59, Young was promoted to second shift supervisor.

Thereafter, employee Ron Jackson complained to Bellofram's human resource employee, Sharon Coleman, alleging racial harassment by three co-workers: Bill Friley, Adam Farmer and Alan Lockwood.

The complaints alleged inappropriate threatening conduct toward Jackson, as well as racially and sexually inappropriate conduct toward other employees.

On Oct. 7, 2005, based on Jackson's report that he had complained to Young of the inappropriate conduct and that she had ignored the situation, she was placed on an unpaid suspension pending a review.

Coleman, with human resources, performed an internal investigation, resulting in Bellofram's determination that Young, as the supervisor of the subordinates at issue, knew of the inappropriate conduct but chose to ignore it and told other employees to disregard it as well.

Based on that information, Bellofram hired a third-party consultant, Mary Ellis, to look into the matter.

Ellis interviewed 30 employees in addition to Young. Bellofram contends the report revealed that Young, as supervisor, was aware of the inappropriate conduct. In fact, she admitted that she personally witnessed some of the conduct. Further, she conceded that some employees complained to her about the conduct. However, it is alleged that she took no action to stop the conduct.

As a result of the findings of the third-party investigation, Young's employment was terminated on Oct. 25, 2005, for failing to enforce the company's anti-harassment policy. Young was 60 years old when she was let go.

Soon after her dismissal, Young filed a lawsuit against Bellofram, alleging the following:

- Wrongful termination in violation of the West Virginia Human Rights Act;

- Discrimination on the basis of age in violation of the act;

- Discrimination on the basis of gender in violation of the act;

- Breach of contract arising from Bellofram's alleged promise to Young of continued employment until retirement;

- Breach of contract stemming from Young's complaint that Bellofram failed to follow its progressive disciplinary policy; and

- The tort of outrage.

Bellofram answered that Young's termination was based on her failure to properly manage or discipline three employees under her supervision, whose inappropriate conduct was confirmed by a report of an independent investigator.

A bench trial was conducted, wherein the lower court found in favor of Young.

The circuit court's first order, entered Dec. 1, 2008, had found that Bellofram discriminated against Young and wrongfully terminated her in violation of the West Virginia Human Rights Act.

A second order, entered March 24, 2009, awarded attorney fees and costs to Young.

On appeal to the Court, Bellofram argued that Young was terminated because of her condonation of illegal behavior by her subordinates, and that neither her age nor her gender played a role in the decision to release her from employment.

According to the Court's opinion, delivered per curiam, "Despite the mention in the lower court's order that Ms. Young was 60 years of age at the time of her termination, the order provides no further specifics to support its conclusion that Ms. Young submitted sufficient evidence to support an age discrimination claim."

The Court also found that the circuit court's comparison of Young and Donnie Shuman, an employee at Bellofram who was disciplined less harshly than Young for engaging in similar conduct, is "unsupported by the record."

The justices noted, "A thorough review of the record reveals that Donnie Shuman was in a supervisory position for approximately six years. Contemporaneous in time to his demotion, Mr. Shuman was experiencing extreme personal difficulties that prevented him from performing his job requirements satisfactorily. Further, Bellofram determined that Mr. Shuman failed in controlling his subordinates insofar as he failed to enforce time limits for breaks, etc.

"While Mr. Shuman, as supervisor, did receive some employee complaints of harassing behavior, the testimony before the circuit court was that Mr. Shuman talked with the alleged perpetrator and the misconduct ceased."

Simply put, Shuman's history is not comparable to that of Young's employment as supervisor, the Court wrote.

The justices concluded, "To maintain her claims of age and gender discrimination, Ms. Young is required to prove that there is a nexus between her protected class and the discipline imposed. She has failed to do so."

They continued, "We determine that Ms. Young failed to control the harassing behavior of her subordinates towards other employees; therefore, Bellofram had the right to terminate her employment to protect itself from liability pertaining to the work environment created by Ms. Young's inactions."

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by e-mail at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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