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Deana Thompson v. Tractor Supply Company

September 21, 2011

DEANA THOMPSON,
PLAINTIFF,
v.
TRACTOR SUPPLY COMPANY,
DEFENDANT.



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

OPINION AND ORDER OF COURT

Plaintiff, Deana Thompson ("Plaintiff" or "Thompson"), initiated this action against her former employer, Defendant Tractor Supply Company ("Defendant" or "TSC"), alleging discriminatory treatment on the basis of sex and retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et seq. ("Title VII") 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. 21). Plaintiff opposes Defendant‟s Motion. After careful consideration of the parties‟ submissions, Defendant‟s motion is denied.

I. INTRODUCTION

A. Factual Background

Unless otherwise indicated, the following material facts are undisputed.

1. Plaintiff's Employment History

Thompson began her employment with TSC on November 11, 2004. Thompson worked first as a cashier at TSC‟s Follansbee, West Virginia, store. She then was promoted into a "Receiver" position in 2005. The receiver is responsible for loading/unloading, inventory, and floor placement of merchandise. In April 2007, Thompson was promoted to Assistant Store Manager at the Follansbee store. As Assistant Manager, Thompson supervised cashiers, team leaders, team members, and the receiver. According to District Manager Don Hamar, Thompson had a very good rapport with customers.

2. Hamar's Alleged Conversation with Luann Duplinsky

In support of her sex discrimination claim, Thompson offers the affidavit of TSC customer Luann Duplinsky. See Pl.‟s App‟x (Docket No. 31) Ex. 2 ("Duplinsky Aff."). In her Affidavit, Duplinsky avers that in or around 2007,*fn1 she spoke with Hamar at TSC regarding a complaint she had about horse food. Duplinsky Aff. ¶ 2. Duplinsky states that during the conversation, she mentioned to Hamar that a woman should be manager of the store and asked "why don‟t you make Deana [Thompson] a manager?" Id. ¶¶ 3-4. According to Duplinsky, Hamar responded, "As long as I‟m district manager, there will never be a woman in charge." Id.

¶ 5. According to TSC, Hamar denies knowing Ms. Duplinsky and denies that such a conversation ever took place.*fn2

3. December 2008 Store Manager Position

In December 2008, the Store Manager position became available at the Follansbee store. In hiring a store manager, Hamar looks for someone with good leadership abilities, a command presence, and someone who can execute and follow directions. Experience with the store is also a factor. Hamar looks at how the employee has performed in other positions, and "if they have worked themselves up through the company, starting off as a team member working themselves up." Hamar Dep. at 15-16. Customer service ability also is taken into consideration. In addition, TSC looks for "lifestyle experience" -- i.e., outside experience as a farmer, a rancher, a horse owner, or a welder -- because it helps managers relate to the customers more effectively.

Hamar knew from past conversations with Thompson that she was interested in becoming store manager. On December 15, 2008, Hamar asked Thompson during a phone conversation if she was interested in the store manager position, and Thompson said yes. At this time, Hamar also had Clement Young in mind for the position. Young had begun his employment with TSC in January 2008 as Assistant Manager in the Glendale, West Virginia store. In December 2008, Young was an Assistant Manager in TSC‟s Wheeling, West Virginia store and had worked for TSC for less than a year. Prior to working for TSC, Young spent over 30 years in the military with a supervisory rank. Young also grew up on a farm and currently owns and operates a farm ("lifestyle experience"). Thompson states that she also had lifestyle experience. Specifically, Thompson avers that she has lived on a farm since birth and, for the past 25 years, has handled livestock. Pl.‟s App‟x (Docket No. 31) Ex. 1 ("Thompson Aff.") ¶¶ 1-5. Thompson also states that she has experience installing and repairing fences, cutting and baling hay, operating farm equipment, and working with furnaces. Id.

Thompson did not receive the store manager promotion. Instead, Hamar promoted Young who, in January 2009, began working as Store Manager at Follansbee. Hamar testified in his deposition that one reason he selected Young was because he felt that Young held staff members more "accountable" than Thompson who was "more a friend with her team." Hamar Dep. (Docket No. 23-1) at 43. In its position statement to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") and its initial Answers to Interrogatories, TSC claimed it promoted Young over Thompson because Young‟s store had significantly better "numbers," including sales, profits, and "shrink"*fn3 and because TSC determined that Thompson lacked the leadership qualities essential to becoming a productive store manager and that she needed to further develop those skills. Pl.‟s App‟x Exs. 16 (Position Statement) and 6 (Answers to First Interrogatories).*fn4 Following depositions in this case, TSC "supplemented" the above interrogatory response. The amended interrogatory response eliminates mention of store numbers as a factor and indicates, inter alia, that "[i]t was determined that Young was the better of the two candidates at that time, and that Thompson needed to further develop her management skills before moving into a Store Manager role." Pl.‟s App‟x Ex. 19 (Supplemental Answers to First Interrogatories). The supplemental response also referred Thompson to "the deposition testimony of Don Hamar on this issue." Id.

Hamar advised Thompson of his decision to promote Young during a meeting in December 2008. Immediately before he informed Thompson about his decision, Hamar had been approached by a co-worker of Thompson‟s by the name of Orville Crawford, who asked Hamar what it would take for a woman to be a manager of a Tractor Supply Store. Hamar was under the impression that Crawford and Thompson had discussed Thompson‟s belief that she was not promoted because of her gender. Hamar testified that he was concerned by Orville‟s remark, but was not upset or angry about it. Hamar Dep. at 56. At his meeting with Thompson, Hamar specifically told her that his decision was not based upon gender.*fn5 Thompson testified that she told Hamar that she "understood why Orville felt the way he felt" and that she agreed with Orville‟s remark. Thompson Dep. (Docket No. 31-1) at 53-54.*fn6 From this conversation, Hamar believed that Thompson thought that she was not promoted because of her gender.

After Young‟s promotion, Thompson remained employed as the Assistant Store Manager at the Follansbee store, but her managers believed that she had the potential to be promoted at some point in the future. No one at TSC ever told Thompson that she would not become a store manager, and Hamar specifically informed Thompson that there was opportunity for her promotion in the future. Young found Thompson to be supportive as he transitioned into the store manager role.

In January 2009, the Follansbee store was reassigned from Hamar‟s region to Area Manager Gerald ("Jerry") Robinson‟s region. Robinson testified that at some point after the promotion decision but prior to Thompson‟s termination from employment, Hamar told him that Thompson believed she was not promoted because she was a woman. Robinson Dep. (Docket No. 31-2, Ex. 9) at 10-11.

4. February 5, 2009 Incident

On February 5, 2009, Thompson was scheduled to work from 12:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. Because Thompson was working more than 10 hours, she needed to take two 30-minute lunch breaks. She therefore worked roughly 5 hours, combined her two lunches, and worked roughly another 5 hours. Thompson testified that she told the Receiver, Misty Sayers, that she was going to take an extended lunch and that she left Sayers in charge of the store while she was gone. Thompson told Sayers to call her on her cell phone if she had any problems. Sayers had no problem with Thompson taking an extended lunch, and felt confident to look over the store while Thompson was gone. Sayers did not believe it was out of the ordinary for Thompson to tell her she was going to be left in charge during Thompson‟s lunch break.

Thompson clocked out on her lunch break from 4:52 p.m. to 6:31 p.m., or approximately 1.5 hours. Thompson admits that she had never left the store for that length of time before. Thompson also admits that she understood that TSC policy required that someone with a key to open and close the store in case of emergency (a "key carrier") had to be present in the store at all times. As the Assistant Manager, Thompson was given -- and was responsible for -- keys to the front door, back door, office and outside gate. The Store Manager and Team Leaders also carried store keys. Young was not working on February 5, 2009, and Team Leader Tonya Francis was only scheduled until 3:30 p.m. Thus, at the time of her lunch break, Thompson was the only official key carrier on duty.*fn7

While Thompson was gone, she received a call at the store from Robinson. When Robinson was told during the phone call that Thompson was at lunch, he said he would call back. Robinson called back about 45 minutes later to talk to Thompson, but was told she had not yet returned to the store. Robinson testified at his deposition that "well over an hour" after his first call, he called the store yet a third time, and again was told that Thompson was gone. Robinson Dep. (Docket No. 23-1) at 19.*fn8 Robinson understood that Sayers had been left in charge of the store during Plaintiff‟s absence. Robinson testified that he believed a "member of management must be in the building at all times" and that he did not believe Sayers had managerial duties or that she was a designated key carrier. Robinson Dep. at 18, 28, 40-41.

The parties admit, however, that managers had routinely left Sayers in charge of the store and that both Thompson and Sayers explained this fact in written statements before Thompson‟s discharge. When Thompson left Sayers in the store, Sayers was still classified as a "Team Leader" in her personnel paperwork. Two days before Thompson‟s discharge, Young changed Sayers‟s classification from "Team Leader" to "Receiver," and Robinson approved the change. Pl.‟s App‟x (Docket No. 31) Exs. 14-15.

5. Plaintiff's Termination from Employment

On February 10, 2009, Meredith Williams, a TSC Human Resources representative, interviewed Thompson by phone about the events of February 5. Clem Young also was present during the phone call. Thompson told Williams during the interview that she had left the store to take care of a "personal" issue. Although Thompson did not elaborate on the nature of the personal issue at the time, she contends that no one ever asked that she divulge that information. Following her conversation with Thompson, Williams also spoke with Young and Sayers. Both Thompson and Sayers provided written statements at Williams‟ request. In her statement, Thompson wrote, inter alia, that Sayers was a designated key carrier; that she left Sayers in charge because she had a personal issue that required immediate attention; and that Sayers had been a team leader or designated as team leader for years and was used to open and close the store in the past by managers. See Pl.‟s App‟x Ex 12. Sayers wrote, inter alia, that she did not know at the time that it was not alright for a key carrier to take a lunch or leave the store when he or she was the only key carrier on duty. She also stated that she was usually called to the floor so that a manager or key carrier could go to the bank or to lunch. See Pl.‟s App‟x Ex. 13. Robinson saw Thompson‟s statement prior to firing her.*fn9

On February 12, 2009, Young informed Thompson that her employment with TSC was terminated. TSC contends that Robinson made the termination decision.*fn10 The "Team Member Counseling Form" documenting the termination lists the reason for the termination as: "Rather than contact the Store Manager for permission or direction, Deana left the store for 1.5 hours on 2/5/09, leaving the store without a manager on duty." Def.‟s App‟x (Docket 23-2) Ex. B. In its Concise Statement of Material Facts, TSC describes the reason as "a result of leaving the store unattended (without a "key carrier‟/managerial person in charge) for more than an hour and without checking for permission or direction before doing so." Docket No. 23 ¶ 39. Robinson testified that he considered giving Thompson a final written warning but that he fired her instead because he "thought the seriousness of leaving the store for well over an ...


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