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Finnegan v. Township

June 25, 2008

VIRGINIA B. FINNEGAN, PLAINTIFF,
v.
ROSS TOWNSHIP, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ambrose, Chief District Judge

OPINION AND ORDER OF COURT

Plaintiff, Virginia Finnegan ("Plaintiff" or "Finnegan"), initiated this action against her former employer, Defendant Ross Township, alleging discriminatory treatment on the basis of sex and age in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et seq. ("Title VII"), the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, 29 U.S.C. § 621, et seq. ("ADEA"), and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, 43 P.S. § 951, et seq. ("PHRA").

Pending before the Court is Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment seeking dismissal of Plaintiff's claims in their entirety. (Docket No. 14). Plaintiff opposes Defendant's Motion. (Docket No.17). After careful consideration of the parties' submissions and for the reasons set forth below, Defendant's motion is granted in part and denied in part.

I. INTRODUCTION

A. Factual Background

Unless otherwise indicated, the following material facts are undisputed.

Plaintiff was employed as Finance Director of Ross Township for approximately 11 years, until her involuntary termination from employment on April 10, 2006. Plaintiff, a female, was born on May 16, 1945, and was 60 years old as of the 000date of her discharge. She was hired by Ross Township a week short of her 50th birthday and replaced another female Finance Director who had resigned. Township Manager Tom Lavorini was Plaintiff's direct supervisor. Plaintiff and Mr. Lavorini had a good relationship and worked very closely together.

In 2005, Plaintiff claims that the work product of an employee in the Finance Department, Leona Ziegler, began to deteriorate, and that she counseled Ms. Ziegler periodically about the decline in her work performance. According to Plaintiff, Ms. Ziegler decided to resign from employment in early 2006 rather than improve her work performance. Plaintiff further testified that several members of the Ross Township Board of Commissioners ("Board") called Ms. Ziegler into a meeting to find out why she had resigned from employment, and then arranged an Executive Session of the Board at which Plaintiff was questioned regarding the circumstances leading up to Ms. Ziegler's resignation. The Executive Session took place on March 20, 2006.

At one point during the March 20 session, after the Board had finished questioning Plaintiff, one of the Board members (Board Vice President Dan Kinross)*fn1 told Plaintiff she could leave the session. Plaintiff claims that she responded that she would like to stay because the Board was going to vote on a matter concerning her department. She recalls that Mr. Kinross replied, "No, you can leave." Plaintiff testified that, at that point, she said okay and then left. Defendant disagrees and points to deposition testimony from different commissioners indicating that Plaintiff refused to leave the meeting and that, as a result, Mr. Kinross got up and left the meeting himself. Mr. Kinross testified at his deposition that he told Plaintiff "if you're not going to leave, then I am." Docket No. 16, Ex. C (Kinross Dep.) at 40. Plaintiff remembers Mr. Kinross standing up and putting on his coat. In this regard, she stated that she was "kind of astounded . . . at his reaction specifically, because I did not think I said anything inappropriately. I thought I requested to stay. They said no you can't stay and I left." Id. at 174. Plaintiff does not recall Mr. Kinross leaving, and it was her perception that she left the room before he did. Id. at 178. Plaintiff testified that when she was told the second time that she could not stay, she considered it a direct order and left.*fn2

After the March 20, 2006 meeting, Tom Lavorini, the Township Manager, suggested that Plaintiff talk to Board President Lana Mazur because he knew that Ms. Mazur or the Board was upset. Id. at 182. Plaintiff testified that she herself was upset because of the way the Board had treated her at the meeting. Id. At approximately 4:00 p.m. on or about March 23, 2006,*fn3 Plaintiff stopped Ms. Mazur and requested to speak to her in a public area of the Township Building between the tax office and the bathrooms. Id. at 183-85. Plaintiff stated that she asked Ms. Mazur if the Board had accomplished what they intended with Plaintiff's appearance before them at the March 20 meeting and that she told Ms. Mazur that it was demeaning for her to appear before the Board in that manner. Plaintiff testified that she told Ms. Mazur that the forum in which they had her appear was intimidating and it would have been better to sit down at a table to discuss their concerns. Plaintiff also states that she told Ms. Mazur that Ms. Ziegler had resigned so there was no point in discussing her shortcomings.*fn4 Plaintiff claims that she wanted Ms. Mazur to know how she felt, but denies that her discussion with Ms. Mazur was an argument or that voices were raised. Rather, she describes the meeting as a "fairly cordial conversation" and probably an "intense conversation" although it was not heated or loud. Pl.'s Dep. at 190-92. Ms. Mazur testified differently as to the events of March 23. Specifically, Ms. Mazur described the encounter with Plaintiff as a "confrontation" initiated by Plaintiff and stated that Plaintiff was very angry and was yelling at Ms. Mazur about Plaintiff's appearance at the March 20 Executive Session. Docket No. 16, Ex. D (Mazur Dep.) at 41-50.*fn5

On March 29, 2006, Plaintiff contends that Mr. Lavorini called her into his office and told her the Board was after her job based on two reasons: (1) the events of the March 20, 2006 meeting, including her alleged refusal to leave, which were described to her as "insubordination"; and (2) Plaintiff's alleged "confrontation" with Ms. Mazur on or about March 23, 2006. Mr. Lavorini advised Plaintiff to call Ms. Mazur, Commissioner Grace Stanko, and any other Commissioners to do damage control. Plaintiff did not apologize for the events on these two occasions because she did not believe she had done anything wrong. Pl.'s Dep. at 199-200, 210.

Ms. Mazur testified that she reported the March 23 incident of alleged insubordination to the Board at an Executive Session on April 10, 2006, and that the Board discussed the incident as well as the March 20, 2006 incident. Other Commissioners also stated that, at the April 10, 2006 Executive Session, the Board discussed the termination of Plaintiff's employment based on her alleged insubordination on these two dates. Plaintiff alleges that other matters also were discussed, including possible mitigating factors and the Township's progressive discipline policy. When the regular meeting resumed later that same evening, the Board voted, by a roll call vote of 5-4, to terminate Plaintiff's employment as Finance Director, effective immediately.*fn6 Plaintiff ultimately was replaced in July 2006 by a 51-year old male, Wayne Jones.

Plaintiff admits she received the Ross Township Employee Handbook and, although she does not know if she read it specifically, she knew that insubordination or disrespectful conduct was one of several infractions noted in the handbook as not being permitted. Among other things, the handbook states that "employment with Ross Township is based on mutual consent and both the employee and Ross Township have the right to terminate employment at will with or without cause or advance notice. . . ." Docket No. 16, Ex. L. at 2, 37-38. The handbook further states that the Township may use progressive discipline at its discretion but that the progressive steps (verbal warning, written warning, and suspension) may be bypassed "depending on the severity of the problem and the number of occurrences." Id. at 37. Among other things the handbook explains that "Ross Township recognizes that there are certain types of employee problems that are serious enough to justify either a suspension, or, in extreme situation[s], termination of employment, without going through the usual progressive discipline steps." Id. Under section 701 of the handbook, an example of a rules of conduct infraction that may result in disciplinary action, including termination, is "insubordination or other disrespectful conduct." Id. at 31-32.

B. Procedural History

On March 29, 2007, Plaintiff filed a Complaint against Defendant. (Docket No. 1). On May 31, 2007, Defendant filed its Answer to Plaintiff's Complaint. (Docket No. 11). On November 30, 2007, Defendant filed the instant Motion for Summary Judgment and supporting materials. (Docket Nos. 14-16). On January 14, 2008, Plaintiff filed a Counter Concise Statement of Material Facts, Exhibits, and a Brief in Opposition to Defendant's Motion. (Docket Nos. 17, 19-20). Defendant ...


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