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Yingst v. Texas New Mexico Newspaper Partnership

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

August 13, 2014

CLARE E. YINGST, Plaintiff,
v.
TEXAS NEW MEXICO NEWSPAPER PARTNERSHIP, t/d/b/a LEBANON DAILY NEWS; NORTHWEST NEW MEXICO NEWSPAPER PARTNERSHIP, a wholly owned subsidiary of MEDIANEWS GROUP, INC.; and MEDIANEWS GROUP, INC., Judge Sylvia H. Rambo Defendants.

MEMORANDUM

SYLVIA H. RAMBO, District Judge.

In this employment discrimination action, Plaintiff, a former employee of Defendants, alleged that she was discriminated against because of her age when her employment was terminated in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act. Presently before the court is Defendants' motion for summary judgment (Doc. 23), wherein Defendants contend that Plaintiff cannot establish that the legitimate non-discriminatory basis for her termination was a pretext and, alternatively, that Plaintiff failed to mitigate her damages and therefore cannot recover front pay. For the following reasons, Defendants' motion will be denied.

I. Background

The claims in this case are based largely upon the events underlying Defendants' decision to terminate Plaintiff's employment, which was supposedly based upon Plaintiff's forging clients' signatures on replacement contracts and the allegedly feigned investigation conducted by Defendants in connection thereto. The following facts are undisputed or, where disputed, reflect Plaintiff's version of facts in the record, pursuant to this court's duty to view all facts and reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby Inc. , 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986).

A. Facts

Plaintiff, Clare Yingst, who at all times relevant to this litigation was a member of the class of individuals protected against age-based discrimination in the workplace, was hired on October 21, 1996, by Defendant Lebanon Daily News ("Defendant LDN"), an entity owned by Defendant Texas New Mexico Newspapers Partnership ("Defendant Tex Mex"), as a Classified Advertising Manager. (Doc. 24, ¶¶ 5-7, 9-12, 36.) Plaintiff was employed in that capacity until she resigned at Defendant LDN's direction on February 3, 2010.[1] ( Id. at ¶ 1.) Plaintiff's job duties included, inter alia , servicing advertising clients, facilitating the purchase of advertising space by clients, assisting with the creation of advertisements, authorizing the placement of advertisements, selling advertising and marketing plans, and overseeing financial billing. ( See id. at ¶¶ 37-39.)

Although she did not have direct authority to fire Plaintiff, Nicole Goodyear Natale ("Goodyear"), who was 33 years old at the time Plaintiff's employment was terminated, was in a supervisory position over Plaintiff.[2] ( See id. at ¶ 41; Doc. 31, ¶ 41.) Goodyear was employed by Defendant LDN as an Advertising Manager from 2008 until early 2011, and was thereafter a sales representative until her resignation in April 2011. (Doc. 24, ¶ 23.) As Advertising Manager, Goodyear was responsible for training new sales representatives, placing employment notices, conducting interviews for new sales representatives, and recommending disposition of disciplinary issues. ( Id. at ¶ 24.) Goodyear reported to David Smith, the former Publisher at LDN, who was responsible for overseeing and managing LDN's operations, personnel, financials, and distribution of the newspaper. ( Id . at ¶ 26.)

1. Ageist culture at Defendant LDN

Several employees testified that an ageist and sexist corporate culture existed at LGN. Plaintiff testified that, on several occasions, Goodyear made comments highlighting the value of working with "young, hot chicks" and that "young sex sells." ( See Doc. 32-2, p. 18 of 44.) Evidence in the record tends to establish that Goodyear encouraged provocative dress for the younger female employees but did not suggest the same to older employees, including Plaintiff, characterizing them as old. (Doc. 32-5, p. 24 of 28.) To this end, Colleen Novak, an outside sales representative who is two years younger than Plaintiff, testified that she heard Goodyear say that "if [Defendant LDN] got somebody younger [in the advertising sales department], somebody that could wear short skirts, somebody that could have their parts hanging out, that [advertising revenue] would probably come up." ( Id. at pp. 4-5 of 28.) Cheryl Brewer, an outside sales representative who is more than six years younger than Plaintiff, corroborated the testimony of other employees regarding Goodyear's endorsing provocative dress by younger female employees and testified that Goodyear called her "an old fart." (Doc. 32-7, p. 9 of 19.) Brewer also testified that Goodyear made age-based comments to others, including Plaintiff. ( Id. ) Smith was often present when these comments were made. ( Id. )

Evidence of record also establishes that Smith treated the younger employees differently than those older, including telling jokes to younger employees that painted older persons "in a negative light." ( See Doc. 32-11, p. 20 of 25.) Specifically, Kristina Kolb, a former graphic designer at LDN, testified that Smith never joked at the expense of any particular individual, but certainly demonstrated a preference for the people with whom he associated ( see id. ), especially gravitating toward Goodyear despite his knowledge that other employees complained of Goodyear's deficiencies as a manager ( see Doc. 32-7, pp. 3-4 of 19; Doc. 32-5, p. 16 of 28).

2. Advertising contracts

Historically, Plaintiff did not have advertising clients sign annual contracts in every instance. (Doc. 24, ¶ 57.) However, from mid-2009 through 2010, Defendants engaged in a process aimed at centralizing the sales functions of all newspapers owned by MediaOnePA, [3] including Defendant LDN, which occasioned Defendants implementing a new front-end computer system for advertising functions for MediaOnePA, including, inter alia , advertising information, schedules, rates, and contracts. ( Id. at ¶¶ 54, 55.) Each individual newspaper was responsible for ensuring that all rate information and all advertising contracts were delivered to the advertising department at Defendants' central York regional office ( see id. at ¶ 14) to be inputted into a new centralized computer system known as Mactive ( id. at ¶ 56). As part of the implementation of the Mactive system, advertising representatives, including Plaintiff, were required to complete and submit signed contracts from all advertisers, a requirement of which Plaintiff was notified during the summer of 2009 and had to have completed by the end of the calendar year. ( Id. at ¶¶ 58-60.)

In late January 2010, Goodyear informed Plaintiff that the regional office had lost the contracts that Plaintiff had earlier procured. (Doc. 32-2, p. 26 of 44.) Goodyear further told Plaintiff that Plaintiff needed to "get [the contracts] signed again" because, otherwise, the advertisements Plaintiff had procured would not be billed. ( Id. ) Plaintiff testified that Goodyear directed her to have the signed contracts before a meeting at the regional office, and reminded Plaintiff of the requirement numerous times. ( See id. at p. 28 of 44.) According to Plaintiff, Goodyear told her that the regional office was "going to ream [Goodyear's] ass out if [Goodyear did not] have them, " to which Plaintiff responded that she did not have them all signed, and questioned whether Goodyear wanted her to sign the contracts. ( Id. ) Plaintiff testified that Goodyear told her to sign the contracts and that they would "swap them out when [they received the properly executed contracts]." ( Id. ) Plaintiff admitted that she did forge the signatures of advertisers on several of the replacement advertising contracts.[4] (Doc. 32-2, pp. 15-16 of 44.) Plaintiff produced the forged contracts to Goodyear, who in turn delivered the replacement contracts with the signatures to Doug Cooper, the Advertising Director for the York Newspaper Company and the point person for the implementation of the Mactive system for Defendant LDN. (Doc. 24, ¶ 69; Doc. 31, ¶ 46.) Cooper reviewed the contracts and immediately noticed that each appeared to be signed by the same person. (Doc. 24, ¶ 70.) Cooper immediately took the contracts to his supervisor, Frederick Uffelman, the former president and Chief Executive Officer of MediaOne, and asked Uffelman whether he noticed anything odd about the contracts. ( Id. at ¶¶ 71-72.) Uffelman shared Cooper's suspicion and told Cooper that the contracts all appeared to be signed by the same person. ( Id . at ¶ 73.) Uffelman then directed Smith to investigate the matter. ( Id . at ¶ 74.)

Following Uffelman's direction, Smith reviewed the contracts and noticed that the handwriting on the signatures belonged to Plaintiff. ( Id. at ¶ 75.) Smith met with Plaintiff to discuss the contracts on February 3, 2010. (Doc. 32-2, p. 34 of 44.) Plaintiff recounted that meeting, during which Goodyear was also present (Doc. 24, ¶ 77), as follows:

I was at work. Dave Smith called me into his office. I walked in and [Smith] was behind his desk. [Goodyear] was sitting there on the right hand side, and I took a seat on the left. And [Smith] said with his hands behind his head, he was sitting there and he said, [Plaintiff], we have a problem. And I said, what's the problem, [Smith]. And he said that York noticed that all the contracts that I sent down had the same signature on them. And I said, yeah, they did, I signed them. And he said, are you admitting you signed them. And I said, yeah, she told me to, pointing to [Goodyear]. She was sitting there. I said, yeah, she told me to sign them .
And [Goodyear] said, yeah, I know how - This is what [Goodyear] said, yeah, I know how hard it is for [Plaintiff] to get ahold of these auto dealers like Ebersole's. And [Smith] said - And she said Brandon Cave, I know how hard it is. Then [Smith] said, well, I don't know what we're going to do about this. And I said something - I don't know what to do about this, you know, you signing these. And I said, well, [Smith], they all signed them already, they signed them last year.
And then that - You know, that was basically the end of the conversation. He said that he doesn't know what's going to happen, I don't know what's going to happen here, I don't know what I can do for you. And that was the end of that meeting.
* * *
[Smith] just said that, you know, I can't sign other people's names and that it was illegal.

(Doc. 32-2, p. 34 of 44 (emphasis supplied).) Smith's memorandum memorializing his meetings with regard to the forged contracts set forth a slightly ...


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