A lawsuit alleging discrimination and wrongful termination lodged by a former executive of a Southwest Virginia bank against her previous employer was dismissed by a federal judge last month.
Senior U.S. District Judge James P. Jones of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia granted New Peoples Bank’s motion for summary judgment in Trigiani v. New Peoples Bank Inc. (VLW 022-3-168), finding former executive Mary Trigiani unable to prove her discrimination claims.
“While over-the-top allegations are unfortunately not unusual in initial pleadings, the time for reckoning often comes, as it does in this case. The plaintiff here is essentially her only witness and her subjective conclusions about her own conduct and the resulting treatment by her employer do not overcome the undisputed facts,” Jones wrote.
Virginia Lawyers Weekly first reported on the suit in February 2021, when Trigiani alleged the bank “encouraged a cult-like office culture” and exhibited bias based on sex and religion.
Trigiani was hired in 2017 as the senior vice president of strategic planning and development of New Peoples Bank, a decision made by bank president and CEO C. Todd Asbury. The role was created by Asbury specifically for Trigiani so she could assist the bank with rebranding efforts, aid in expanding the bank’s foothold in Southwest Virginia and help the bank’s outreach effort.
In early 2019, Trigiani was moved to be under the direct supervision of a different manager instead of Asbury, who has been her supervisor since 2017. The change came months after Asbury told Trigiani he had directed a separation agreement be drafted following complaints from at least 10 different employees about Trigiani’s conduct.
In May 2019, Asbury directed the bank’s managers to identify positions that could be cut as part of a reduction-in-force, citing an economic need to hire “only to replace” and trim the workforce. The bank had a target goal to cut the workforce to a 245 headcount by 2020. Positions were selected for the reduction-in-force based on position cost and employee performance and conduct.
Asbury made the decision to include Trigiani’s position in the reduction-in-force, with a bank board member testifying that Trigiani’s position was “more of a luxury.” Asbury further testified that Trigiani’s position was eliminated because of “behavioral issues and performance tied into that.”
Trigiani’s position was one of 10 positions officially eliminated in September 2019, nine of which were held by women. Eight months later, 30 more employees were laid off, including four senior male executives.
Trigiani filed suit against the bank, alleging sex and religious discrimination claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In her suit, she claimed she was terminated for being “a strong-willed woman” and because she was of the Catholic faith.
The bank moved for summary judgment, contending that Trigiani was terminated in a reduction-in-force for nondiscriminatory reasons.
In his analysis, Jones wrote that because Trigiani did not provide direct evidence of discrimination, he would evaluate her claim of sex discrimination based on the McDonnell Douglas burden shifting framework, where an employer must produce evidence of a legitimate reason for an adverse action. Once that is done, the burden shifts back to the employee to “demonstrate that the asserted justification is pretextual.”
Jones said that the bank successfully provided evidence of a “legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for eliminating Trigiani’s position” — the reduction-in-force.
“The Bank has met its burden to show that it conducted the RIF to reduce headcount and debt, and that it based its selection criteria on cost and job performance — both valid, non-discriminatory bases,” the judge wrote. He noted that Trigiani received a “high salary” and that she had numerous complaints against her by fellow employees — thus meeting both criteria in the reduction-in-force.
Trigiani argued that her inclusion in the reduction-in-force was pretextual, as her work performance was satisfactory and “the Bank has offered changing explanations.” She also contended that “the language used to criticize her is infused with gendered stereotypes.”
None of those arguments were supported by the evidence, Jones wrote. He noted that in a 2018 performance review Trigiani received a rating slightly below “meets standards” and that “it was also made explicitly clear that failure to address these performance issues could result in termination.”
As for the claim the bank has offered “changing explanations” for her termination, the judge said that “there is nothing inherently contradictory about the two explanations” offered by Asbury and the board member.
“In sum, even if the plaintiff could make out a prima facie case, she has put forth no contrary explanation, supported by evidence, that creates a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the defendant’s reason is pretextual,” Jones concluded.
In her claims of religious discrimination, Trigiani alleged that Asbury, an evangelical Protestant pastor, discriminated against her, a non-evangelical Catholic. In support of this, she contended that the bank’s “Golden Rule Banking” principal was “weaponized” against her.
“It is undisputed that Asbury is a pastor at a local evangelical church and that he strictly adheres to his faith, as do other employees at the bank,” Jones wrote. “But that alone does not create an inference of discrimination.”
Jones noted the fact that Asbury hired the plaintiff knowing her religious beliefs, as well as the fact that “several Board members who approved Trigiani’s hiring and firing, as well as several of the employees who made complaints… are also Catholic.”
In addressing the claims about the “Golden Rule Banking” principle, Jones cited testimony from Trigiani where she stated that “she views the principle as divorced from its religious origins,” and that “as she explained, ‘the Golden Rule is universally understood, and it’s no longer even attached to Christianity.’”
“There is no evidence that the Bank’s adherence to this ethos had anything to do with her Catholicism or her termination,” Jones concluded.
In a press release from New Peoples Bank, Asbury said the bank was “very pleased with the outcome of the lawsuit. It has been our position since the day it was filed that this lawsuit was frivolous and the claims were false.”
The bank’s attorney, Charles G. Meyer III of O’Hagan Meyer in Richmond, said the bank “is grateful that the court dismissed this lawsuit by granting our motion for summary judgment.”
“Expecting an employee to follow the Golden Rule and treat others with kindness and respect does not constitute religious discrimination, much less support a claim of hostile work environment or age or gender discrimination,” Meyer said via email.
Roanoke attorney Thomas E. Strelka, who represented Trigiani, said his client is “weighing her options.”
“As developments, internal and external to the legal process, before and since the ruling show, Ms. Trigiani’s case has strong merit,” Strelka said via email.