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Best v. Johnson

United States District Court, N.D. Mississippi, Aberdeen Division

January 20, 2017

DAWN L. BEST PLAINTIFF
v.
WILLIAM D. JOHNSON, PRESIDENT AND CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER OF TENNESSEE VALLEY AUTHORITY DEFENDANT

          FINDINGS OF FACT AND CONCLUSIONS OF LAW.

          NEAL B. BIGGERS, JR. UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         The trial of this cause was held on September 19th and 20th of 2016. The plaintiff Dawn Best sued Bill Johnson, President and CEO of Tennessee Valley Authority, for violating Title VII and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”). The jury returned a verdict in TVA's favor on Plaintiff's Title VII claim. (See Doc. 80.) For the reasons stated in its Order on Defendant's Motion to Strike Plaintiff's Jury Demand (Doc. 69), Plaintiff's ADEA claim was tried before the Court. At the conclusion of trial, and after considering the proffered documents and testimony, the Court found on the record that Plaintiff failed to prove her ADEA claim. (See Doc. 73.) Having found for Defendant, the Court now enters its findings of fact and conclusions of law pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 52(a). Ramirez v. Hofheinz, 619 F.2d 443, 445 (5th Cir. 1980) (“In a trial without a jury, the judge, as the trier of fact, must state, with some degree of precision, his findings of fact and conclusions of law.”)

         I. Findings of Fact

         1. TVA is a corporate agency and instrumentality of the United States of America. 16 U.S.C. §§ 831 to 831ee. Its transmission systems in North America span over 16, 000 miles and serve 9 million people in portions of seven states. http://www.tva.com/power/xmission.htm. TVA sells its electricity to 154 local power company customers, as well as to 59 directly served industries and federal facilities. https://www.tva.gov/Energy/Our-Customers.

         2. TVA's extensive transmission system covers roughly one third of Mississippi. Through 28 municipal and cooperatively owned local power companies, TVA serves 36 Mississippi counties and provides power to more than 337, 700 households. Additionally, it provides electric power to eight directly served industrial customers. These relationships throughout the state resulted in TVA power sales in Mississippi totaling approximately $1.2 billion in fiscal year 2015. https://www.tva.gov/About-TVA/TVA-in-Mississippi. TVA is broken down into seven districts to serve its local power companies, and Mississippi is one of those districts. (Wardlaw Direct, Trial Tr. Vol. II, 104:24-105:2.)

         3. Plaintiff Dawn Best has an electrical engineering degree from Mississippi State University. (Best Direct, Trial Tr. Vol. I, 51:22-24.) TVA hired Plaintiff as a power utilization engineer shortly after she graduated from college in 1979. (Best Direct, Trial Tr. Vol. I, 52:6-53:8.) Plaintiff worked at TVA for almost three years, then left to work at various jobs in Florida. She returned to TVA in 1989, and resumed her work as a power utilization engineer. Plaintiff served in various engineering roles until she became a customer service manager in 1997. (Best Direct, Trial Tr. Vol. I, 54:7-22; 56:12-14; 57:18-58:13; 60:7-16; 62:2-23; 64:20-25; Pl.'s Ex. 2.) In that job, she worked with TVA's municipal and cooperative power distributors. (Best Direct, Trial Tr. Vol. I, 66:14-67:6.) Although her job title and level changed, Plaintiff remained in this customer service role until 2011. (Best Direct, Trial Tr. Vol. I, 67:10-68:12; Pl.'s Ex. 2.) In 2011, Plaintiff took a job as an industrial accounts manager in Mississippi. (Best Direct, Trial Tr. Vol. I, 68:13-69:2; Pl.'s Ex. 2.)

         4. This gender and age employment discrimination case arises from Plaintiff's non-selection as TVA's Mississippi Customer Delivery General Manager (hereinafter, “General Manager”), which is the highest-ranking TVA job in the state of Mississippi. (Wardlaw Direct, Trial Tr. Vol. II, 98:14-20.)

         5. Plaintiff applied for the General Manager job on January 15, 2013. (Best Direct, Trial Tr. Vol. I, 72:3-73:4; Pl.'s Ex. 37.)

         6. Van Wardlaw was the decision-maker for the General Manager selection. (Wardlaw Direct Trial Tr. Vol. II, 98:8-13.) Mr. Wardlaw has spent his entire career at TVA, and currently serves as its Executive Vice President of External Relations. (Wardlaw Direct, Trial Tr. Vol. II, 103:5-104:4.)

         7. When the General Manager position came open, Mr. Wardlaw testified that he had the discretion to “just pick someone that [he] thought was ready for the position based on [his] judgment.” However, he chose to publicly post the position because TVA “had several good candidates internally” and because there were also “several people outside of TVA that [he] thought could potentially do the job, ” so he “wanted to open up that opportunity and see who the best candidate was.” (Wardlaw Direct, Trial Tr. Vol. II, 106:5-19; Brown Direct, Trial Tr. Vol. II, 66:8-20; 69:13-17; Def's Ex. 27.)

         8. Mr. Wardlaw worked with Human Resources to post the position, but he did not directly involve himself in the posting process. (Wardlaw Direct, Trial Tr. Vol. II, 107:5-14.)

         9. As part of the initial steps of its selection process, TVA also conducted a “records review” of the applicants' competencies. This includes things like job history, performance reviews, and experience. This was the “first hurdle” in the selection process. The records review was not determinative; it was only a one of many “hurdles” in the selection process. The purpose of having these multiple “hurdles” was to create “several data points to insure you're making a well-informed decision.” (Brown Direct, Trial Tr. Vol. I, 134:1-21; 134:22-135:8; Brown Direct, Trial Tr. Vol. II, 62:21-64:7.)

         10. The top candidates following the records review proceeded to the next hurdle, which was an interview. Mr. Wardlaw did not participate in these interviews, but instead formed a team to conduct them. Mr. Wardlaw's goal at this stage was for the interview team to screen the candidate pool and bring the number of applicants down to a more manageable number, from which he could then make the final selection decision. He also wanted to bring together “a diverse group of folks” to weigh in on the decision. (Wardlaw Direct, Trial Tr. Vol. II, 108:21-109:18; Campbell Direct, Trial Tr. Vol. II, 49:22-50:1.)

         11. Plaintiff testified that five people interviewed her during the first round: Joie Brown (Human Resources); Rick Misso (Mississippi Customer Service Manager); Jimmy Allen (Senior Advisor to Van Wardlaw); Laura Campbell (Memphis District General Manager); and Jim Keiffer (Middle Tennessee General Manager). (Best Direct, Trial Tr. Vol. I, 73:15-74:2.) Plaintiff brought to the interview a resume, a “90-day plan, ” and letters of recommendation from several general managers at various Mississippi local power companies. (Best Direct, Trial Tr. Vol. I, 74:5-12; see also Pl.'s Exs. 35, 26-34.)

         12. Joie Brown confirmed that she participated in the first round of interviews. (Brown Direct, Trial Tr. Vol. I, 124:21-22.) Ms. Brown testified that the interview team asked the applicants the same questions, took copious notes, and, at the end of the interview, came to a consensus to rate each candidate's interview performance. (Brown Direct, Tr. Vol. I, 138:17-24.) Ms. Brown did not remember the exact details of the interview, but she did remember thinking that Plaintiff did not perform as well as the other candidates. (Brown Direct, Trial Tr. Vol. I, 139:5-140:25.)

         13. Laura Campbell, who is now TVA's Vice President of Customer Delivery, also confirmed that she participated in the first round of interviews. (Campbell Direct Trial Tr. Vol. II, 47:1-6.) At the time she sat on the interview panel, Ms. Campbell did not know the ages of any of the applicants; in fact, at the time, she thought that John Malone (the eventual selectee) was older than Plaintiff. (Campbell Direct, Trial Tr. Vol. II, 50:2-17.) Ms. Campbell did not remember the specific details of the interviews, but she did remember that John Malone “stood out.” She remembered that he “really showed a passion for wanting to lead Mississippi and really kind of dazzled, ” and that “he brought on a lot of charisma towards the end and linked a lot of the broader initiatives that TVA was looking to achieve to what he could bring to Mississippi.” (Campbell Direct, Trial Tr. Vol. II, 50:18-51:2.)

         14. At the end of the first interview, the team recommended that Tommy Jackson (age unknown), Reggie Bowlin (age unknown), John Malone (49 years old), and Bill Duke (age 55) proceed to a final round of interviews. Plaintiff was not among the candidates that the team recommended to move forward. The team told Mr. Wardlaw that they felt the Plaintiff had not performed well in the interview. (Wardlaw Direct, Trial Tr. Vol. II, 110:8-111:8; Def.'s Ex. 22.)

         15. Notwithstanding the interview team's recommendations, Mr. Wardlaw chose to invite Plaintiff to the final round of interviews. He did this because he thought Plaintiff was a long-term employee who had done “an admirable job as [a] customer service manager.” Thus, Mr. Wardlaw felt that “she deserved the opportunity to be looked at one last time.” (Wardlaw Direct, Trial Tr. Vol. II, 111:9-18.)

         16. The final candidates who Mr. Wardlaw interviewed were Plaintiff, John Malone, and Bill Duke. The final interviews were conducted by Van Wardlaw, Jimmy Allen, and Laura Campbell. (Wardlaw Direct, Trial Tr. Vol. II, 111:19-25; Best Direct, Trial Tr. Vol. I, 79:6-13.)

         17. Mr. Wardlaw was looking for four attributes during the interview, and he and his team asked interview questions that aligned with those attributes. (Wardlaw Direct, Trial Tr. Vol. II, 112:17-113:9; 114:6-9; Def.'s Ex. 40.)

         18. The first factor was “leadership, management, previous managing experience.” (Wardlaw Direct, Trial Tr. Vol. II, 113:19-21.) This was important because the General Manager is responsible for creating a “good, positive work environment where people can come to work every day and feel appreciated.” (Wardlaw Direct, Trial Tr. Vol. II, 114:16-115:6.) Neither Plaintiff nor Mr. Malone had extensive experience in that area, so Mr. Wardlaw “graded them about the same level.” (Wardlaw Direct, Trial Tr. Vol. II, 115:8-14.)

         19. The second factor was how well the candidate worked with customers. (Wardlaw Direct, Trial Tr. Vol. II, 113:16-21.) Specifically, Mr. Wardlaw was looking at which candidate would be able to build on TVA's positive relationships with its customers in Mississippi. (Wardlaw Direct, Trial Tr. Vol. II, 115:21-24.) Both Mr. Malone and Plaintiff had “done a really nice job” working with their respective customers. On this factor, Plaintiff “may have had a little bit of an edge, but they were basically close.” (Wardlaw Direct, Trial Tr. Vol. II, 115:25-116:11.)

         20. The third factor was “networking skills, ” which refers to whether someone has the “ability to get things from the bigger TVA into this particular part of the country. . . .” (Wardlaw Direct, Trial Tr. Vol. II, 113:22-25.) To be successful as a General Manager, you have to “be very, very good at understanding how TVA, the bigger corporation, operates and runs.” (Wardlaw Direct, Trial Tr. Vol. II, 117:7-11.) Mr. Wardlaw was personally familiar with this skill, as he had spent a lot of time in Mississippi in the earlier part of his career, and it was not until he worked at other parts of the agency that he “fully understood the criticality of competing for resources and skills and that sort of thing.” (Wardlaw Direct, Trial Tr. Vol. II, 117:12-19.) Mr. Malone was stronger than Plaintiff on this factor, given that he had worked in TVA corporate in Chattanooga, and had also worked at other parts of TVA. (Wardlaw Direct, Trial Tr. Vol. II, 117:23-118:11.)

         21. The fourth factor was “executive skills, ” or the “ability to lead” and “to represent TVA as the face of TVA in the state of Mississippi.” (Wardlaw Direct, Trial Tr. Vol. II, 114:2-5.) This was important to the General Manager position because that person “has to be very poised, has to be very confident, has to be a good communicator, a very good public speaker.” The General Manager may often have to speak in public, must deal with high-ranking officials, and must “stay very calm, very cool, very collected” under stress. (Wardlaw Direct, Trial Tr. Vol. II, 118:24-119:18.) Mr. Wardlaw also described this factor as “executive presence.” Mr. Wardlaw testified that when he considers that term, he is “[t]hinking about poise, confidence, public speaking, problem solving, conflict resolution, dealing with stressful situations and environments, and doing that in a way that gives people confidence that . . . everything's going to be okay; that you understand the situation; that you're going to work hard.” (Wardlaw Direct, Trial Tr. Vol. II, 119:23-120:4.)

         22. On this fourth factor, Mr. Wardlaw testified that Mr. Malone was “solidly ahead.” (Wardlaw Direct, Trial Tr. Vol. II, 121:14-17.) Mr. Wardlaw observed that “[d]uring the interview process, [Mr. Malone] handled himself extremely well, answered these questions very thoroughly, stayed on point, was very consistent with his message, did not flinch when we were pressuring him a little bit to get more detailed about a particular question.” Mr. Wardlaw also noted that he had known both Plaintiff and John Malone for 25 years, during which he had observed them in forums, meetings, and public speaking engagements. (Wardlaw Direct, Trial Tr. Vol. II, 121:19-122:5.) As compared to Mr. Malone, the testimony was that the Plaintiff “had a tendency to ramble, to come off point, to come off topic, to say a lot of words that really weren't relevant to the question that was being asked” and that these tendencies “can get you in a lot of trouble in public speaking ...


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