Otte et al v UMB Bank, N.A.
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER granting 82 Motion for Summary Judgment On All Claims Asserted By Plaintiff Danielle Otte (Count III); granting 84 Motion for Summary Judgment On All Claims Asserted By Plaintiff Amber Kay (Count II); denying as moot and without prejudice 86 Motion to Sever. Signed by District Judge Holly L. Teeter on 6/4/2021. (hw)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF KANSAS
DANIELLE OTTE and
Case No. 2:19-cv-02351-HLT-GEB
UMB BANK N.A.,
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
Plaintiffs Danielle Otte and Amber Kay bring claims against Defendant UMB Bank N.A.
for discrimination and retaliation. Kay brings one claim of retaliation under 42 U.S.C. § 1981
(Count II). Otte brings one claim of gender discrimination under Title VII (Count III).1 Defendant
has filed separate motions for summary judgment on both claims. Docs. 82 & 84. Defendant also
moves to sever. Doc. 86. Because Kay fails to show a prima facie case and both Plaintiffs fail to
show pretext, the Court grants Defendant’s motions for summary judgment. The Court denies
Defendant’s motion to sever as moot.
Otte states a claim for retaliation under Title VII in the Pretrial Order. Doc. 80 at 2. But Otte withdrew her
retaliation claim in her response to Defendant’s motion for summary judgment. Doc. 89 at 1 n.1.
Facts Relevant to Otte.
Otte began employment at Defendant on October 3, 2006, as a Customer Service Manager
at its Atchison branch, and Otte remained a manager throughout her employment at the same
branch. On June 28, 2018, Defendant involuntarily terminated Otte from her position of Branch
Manager I. Otte filed a Charge of Discrimination in October 2018 that specifically alleged
discriminatory and retaliatory treatment by Kristine Batch, Nicole Watson, and Lynda BeahmLemmer.3 Otte filed an Amended Charge in March 2019, and the only material change was an
allegation regarding the comparative qualifications of herself and the individual that she believes
replaced her at the Atchison branch.
Defendant has a progressive process for disciplinary action for performance issues. Under
the policy, Defendant has the option of putting an employee on any type of warning that Defendant
sees befitting for that performance issue. On September 25, 2015, Otte received a Level 1 Warning
for unacceptable behavior from her supervisor Cathy Schroder, who Otte does not claim retaliated
or discriminated against her. On March 9, 2016, Otte received a Level 2 Warning for processing a
transaction on her own account from her supervisor, Angela Stewart, who Otte does not claim
discriminated or retaliated against her. On May 5, 2016, Otte received a Level 2 Warning
For purposes of summary judgment, the following facts are uncontroverted or recited in the light most favorable
to Plaintiffs as the nonmoving parties. Additional uncontroverted facts may be included in the analysis as
appropriate. Plaintiffs set forth many additional facts in their responses but do not mention or discuss these facts
in their legal arguments. The Court deems these facts immaterial and does not discuss them. See Shepard v.
Sullivan, 65 F. App’x 677, 681 n.3 (10th Cir. 2003) (holding that a party responding to a motion for summary
judgment is not obligated to controvert facts that the moving party does not rely upon as support for its arguments
and are only included in its statement of facts). In addition, it is not the Court’s role to comb through a party’s
statement of facts and determine where each fact fits into a party’s argument. But even if these facts are considered,
they do not change the outcome of these motions. Summary judgment would remain appropriate.
Batch is a Regional Delivery Manager who for supervises branch managers and personal bankers. She assumed
responsibility of supervising Otte in late 2015. Watson is Batch’s supervisor. Beahm-Lemmer is in human
Continued (meaning Otte was already on a Level 2) for cash differences from Stewart. On August
18, 2016, Otte received a Level 2 Warning Continued from Batch for overall performance
pertaining to a Customer Identification Program. On February 7, 2018, Otte received a Level 2
Warning, Code of Ethics, for Otte’s inaccurate completion of the Officer Code of Ethics
Attestation. This discipline negatively impacted Otte’s compensation.
On June 19-20, 2018, Otte’s branch was the subject of an in-person branch review or audit
performed by Branch Review Quality Control Analyst Candace Henderson-Smith. An audit is for
the purpose of taking a snapshot of branch documentation and records at the time the auditor
arrives. Otte received a Branch Documentation Review List at the beginning of the audit. It stated,
at the top, “[u]nder no circumstances is it permissible to make any changes to any documentation,
all documentation must be presented ‘as is.’” Otte admits she is aware of Defendant’s policy that
documents are not to be altered during an audit and admits that it would be misleading to go in and
change documents during an audit.
On the second day of the review, Henderson-Smith identified several documents (Cash
Drawer Audit Forms) that had been altered from their original state. Henderson-Smith had copied
certain incomplete Cash Drawer Audit Forms on June 19, 2018, but found those forms had been
completed when Otte handed them to her on the second day of the audit. Henderson-Smith’s audit
file thus contains two sets of documents: (1) copies of incomplete Cash Drawer Audit Forms datemarked June 19; and (2) the newly-completed Cash Drawer Audit Forms she received from Otte
date-marked June 20.4 See Doc. 83-6 at 14-25. In the Branch Quality Control Review Final Report,
Henderson-Smith indicated that the altered documents constituted an “additional risk.”
Otte attempts to controvert this by citing her deposition testimony where she maintained that the only documents
she provided on the second day of the audit were cover sheets. However, the testimony does not reference the
scope of what she provided to Henderson-Smith on a specific day. Moreover, Plaintiff testified that she does not
recall what she provided to Henderson-Smith.
Colleen Squires, Henderson-Smith’s supervisor, informed Batch that an audit form had
been altered between day one and day two of the audit. The altered documents were furnished to
Batch. Batch then contacted Watson (her supervisor) and Beahm-Lemmer (human resources) and
shared information of the alteration. Batch came to Otte’s branch and asked Otte “why [she] had
filled out the teller audit sheet.” Otte told Batch that she had told Henderson-Smith:
I did not have the cover sheets on them. I had the audits themselves
done, they were inputted into the teller audit system, but I didn’t
have the cover sheets done. She told me as long as I had them to her
by 5:00 or by the time she left that day, that would be fine. So, I
filled out the cover sheet or sheets that were missing.
Doc. 83-2 at 151:23-152:23, 155:2-158:18. Batch recommended to Watson that Otte be
terminated. Watson and Beahm-Lemmer agreed Otte should be terminated.
Beahm-Lemmer prepared an Involuntary Termination Form, explaining Otte’s termination
as: “Unsatisfactory performance-associate admitted to providing false information to internal
auditors in order to prevent negative employment action since she was already on a Level 2
warning.” Doc. 83-4 at 22:22-24:13. Batch and Beahm-Lemmer notified Otte of her termination.
Facts Relevant to Kay.
Defendant employed Kay from October 7, 2013 until January 23, 2019, the effective date
of her involuntary termination. At the time of her termination, Kay had been employed as a Branch
Manager II since 2018 and was the highest authority within the two branches she managed. Cory
Stone was her first level manager, Stone reported to Watson, and Beahm-Lemmer was the assigned
human resources representative. The only individuals Kay claims engaged in unlawful behavior
as related to the claims in her lawsuit are Beahm-Lemmer and Stone. The final decision makers
on Kay’s termination were Stone and Watson.
Kay notified Stone that two subordinate employees, Cheryl Harris and Angelica Reyes,
had shared a password. Harris is African American, and Reyes is Hispanic. Harris and Reyes held
the same position, had the same security violation, and were on the same level of discipline. Kay
and Beahm-Lemmer met to discuss discipline of Harris and Reyes. Kay was “okay” with the
termination of Harris but “strongly opposed” the termination of Reyes because Kay thought that
Reyes had “potential” or “opportunity.” Beahm-Lemmer then explained to Kay how that scenario
could potentially be interpreted as discriminatory because Harris was of “protected status” while
Reyes was not. Beahm-Lemmer told Kay that “if both associates were not terminated, this would
open the bank to a discrimination suit.” Doc. 85-3 at 65:6-67:10. Beahm-Lemmer testified that the
reference to “protected status” was about Harris’s age (over 40). Kay did not reference race, and
she does not recall Beahm-Lemmer referencing race in the discussion of Harris and Reyes.
Based on Beahm-Lemmer’s direction, Kay submitted emails to Stone on January 15, 2019
that stated, “I am recommending termination for Cheryl Harris” and “I am recommending
termination for Angelica Reyes.” Doc. 85-2 at 76-77. Neither email contains any reference to race
or discrimination. Kay agrees that the terminations of Harris and Reyes followed Defendant’s
policies regarding levels of progressive discipline.
After Harris and Reyes were terminated, they contacted Beahm-Lemmer who scheduled a
meeting with them and her supervisor Sterling Stanford. Reyes and Harris explained that they were
perplexed why Kay terminated them for failing to follow security protocol when Kay failed to
follow security protocol on a regular basis. They explained that, during the branch opening process,
Kay placed them in a “risky position.” Beahm-Lemmer asked Stone to speak with Kay about her
recollection, and Beahm-Lemmer asked the security department to provide additional details to
confirm or not confirm the report they received. Stone understood the concern to be that Harris
and Reyes received guidance to open the bank without being watched or observed.5
Beahm-Lemmer and Stone met with Kay to get her side of the conversation. Kay was then
placed on paid administrative leave while they gathered additional information. Stone found that
Kay “could not answer us,” that Kay “said that she had followed and then said that she had not,”
and that Kay “had differing answers when we were talking to her.” Doc. 85-5 at 57:14-58:14.
Beahm-Lemmer collected information from some other partners, and security provided still photos
of associates entering the branch on the dates in question with time stamps indicating when each
entered. Stone believed the photos reflected Kay at another location at the same time she stated
she was at Defendant’s 6th and Minnesota location. Kay texted Beahm-Lemmer during the
investigation “what I know is that had I known the other associate was that far out I would have
never told [Harris] it was OK to proceed in without being observed . . . .” Doc. 85-2 at 72.
Kay told Stone and Beahm-Lemmer there were two occasions in January 2019 when she
permitted an associate to enter the branch when there was only that associate present, and
instructed the associate to send the all-clear message when the second person had yet to arrive. On
January 14, 2019, Kay had the following text exchange with Harris:
Good morning who’s opening with me this
That’s what the schedule shows and I texted
you and told you Angelica called in
Ariel said that no one told her that she was
opening with me this morning
Defendant’s opening procedures involve two associates, one associate entering the bank and going inside, while a
second associate observes that first associate safely going inside the bank. When an associate must enter the branch
alone, the alone associate is required to contact Defendant’s security division and notify security so that the
associate can be watched virtually as the associate enters the branch.
It’s on the schedule
Ariel comes in at 9am today
My apologies I thought that ariel was
scheduled at 815 but it was angelica so
Cheryl you will just need to open and wait for
ariel no need to call 4810 just send the 1st all
clear as normal.
Doc. 85-2 at 64-66.
Defendant’s investigation revealed through surveillance that Harris entered the branch at
8:28 a.m., within two minutes of Harris’s last text to Kay, and that Harris was alone in the branch
until 8:51 a.m., when Ariel entered the branch. Defendant discovered that Kay entered the Parallel
Parkway branch at 8:41 a.m., which is approximately 11 miles away from the 6th and Minnesota
branch. Kay claims that she instructed Harris to enter after Harris told Kay that Ariel was on her
way into the branch. Harris disclaimed such a call and Kay could not provide Defendant with a
record of such a call. Beahm-Lemmer understood Kay to represent to her and Stone that “she
instructed the associate not to contact Security because she did not want to bother them,” and that
Kay “said she was on her way to the branch and was pulling into the parking lot at the time that
[Harris] would be entering the branch.” Doc. 85-2 at 68:6-24.
After the information was gathered, Beahm-Lemmer, Watson, and Stone participated in a
termination review call. Watson found that Kay not only committed security violations, but she
was not honest by claiming she was at the branch when she was not, which Watson understands
was validated through security footage. Stone recommended to Watson that Kay be terminated
based on security violations and the risk in which Kay had placed associates and the integrity issue
resulting from Kay not being honest about it. Watson and Stone decided to terminate Kay.
Following Stone’s and Watson’s decision, Stone and Beahm-Lemmer called Kay and notified her
of the termination decision. Beahm-Lemmer prepared the Involuntary Termination Form, which
states the basis for Kay’s termination as:
Unsatisfactory Performance – Amber Kay was terminated as a result
of not following security protocol around branch opening
procedures. She instructed her associates on more than one occasion
to enter the banking branch without the required second opener
present in the parking lot. She also instructed them not to contact
our internal security department that would normally observe their
entry via video when a second associate is not available. When
questioned about this event, it appeared as though Amber was not
completely honest which then created an integrity issue in addition
to failing to follow the security guidelines. As a result her
employment was terminated.
Doc. 85-3 at 14.
Defendant’s policies provide for immediate termination if the behavior or action is deemed
severe enough, even if the employee has not received a Level 1 or 2 Written Warning. Per the
Kay was not placed on a Level 2 Written Warning due to the fact
that officers and managers of UMB are held to a higher performance
standard than the associates they manage. As a manager, she was in
a position of authority. As a result of her authority, her team
members felt they had to comply with [her] directives.
Doc. 85-3 at 22.
Summary judgment is appropriate if there is “no genuine dispute as to any material fact
and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). The moving party
bears the initial burden of establishing the absence of a genuine issue of fact. Celotex Corp. v.
Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). The burden then shifts to the nonmovant to demonstrate that
genuine issues remain for trial. See Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S.
574, 586-87 (1986). Courts view the facts and any reasonable inferences in a light most favorable
to the non-moving party. Henderson v. Inter-Chem Coal Co., 41 F.3d 567, 569 (10th Cir. 1994).
“An issue of material fact is genuine if a ‘reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving
party.’” Id. (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)).
Otte brings one claim of gender discrimination under Title VII. Kay brings one claim of
retaliation under 42 U.S.C. § 1981. Defendant moves for summary judgment on both of Plaintiffs’
claims. The Court addresses each claim in turn.
Defendant is entitled to summary judgment on Otte’s claim of gender
The Court first addresses Otte’s Title VII gender discrimination claim. Because Plaintiff
does not offer direct evidence of discrimination, the Court follows the McDonnell Douglas burdenshifting framework. Young v. Physician Office Partners, Inc., 2020 WL 1446911, at *11 (D. Kan.
2020) (citation omitted). Under this framework, Plaintiff has the initial burden of establishing a
prima facie case of discrimination. Id. Once Plaintiff establishes a prima facie case, the burden
shifts to Defendant to articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the termination. If
Defendant does so, Plaintiff must then show that Defendant’s reason was pretextual. Id.
For purposes of this motion, the Court finds that Otte can establish a
prima facie case of gender discrimination.
To establish a prima facie case of Title VII gender discrimination, a plaintiff must
demonstrate by a preponderance of the evidence that: (1) she belongs to a protected class; (2) she
was qualified and satisfactorily preforming her job duties; and (3) the adverse action occurred
under circumstances giving rise to an inference of discrimination. Kear v. Kohl’s Dep’t Stores,
Inc., 2015 WL 6473549, at *9 (D. Kan. 2015).
The briefing on whether Otte can establish a prima facie case is muddled. Defendant
contends Otte cannot show the third element but ties the argument to pretext. Otte responds that
she can show the third element because she was replaced by a male with no banking experience.
Defendant’s reply concedes that a male was selected to fill her position and that Plaintiff can
establish a prima facie case of gender discrimination. But Defendant rejects Otte’s assertion that
she was more qualified for the position than her replacement and again ties its argument back to
pretext. Doc. 94 at 31 n.4. The Court finds that Otte establishes a prima facie case of gender
discrimination because she is a member of a protected class, was replaced by a male, and there are
facts by which a reasonable jury could find that she was qualified and satisfactorily performing
her job duties. See, e.g., Grubbs v. Salvation Army, 2014 WL 6977943, at *5 (D. Kan. 2014) (citing
Khalik v. United Air Lines, 671 F.3d 1188, 1192 (10th Cir. 2012)) (stating that third element of
prima facie case of gender discrimination is satisfied if plaintiff can establish they were replaced
by someone not in the protected class).
Defendant has a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for Otte’s
Next, Defendant articulates a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for Otte’s termination.
Defendant need not “litigate the merits of the reasoning, nor does it need to prove that the reason
relied upon was bona fide, nor does it need to prove that the reasoning was applied in a
nondiscriminatory fashion.” Etsitty v. Utah Transit Auth., 502 F.3d 1215, 1224 (10th Cir. 2007).
Instead, Defendant needs only to “explain its actions against the plaintiff in terms that are not
facially prohibited by Title VII.” Id. Here, Defendant states that Otte was terminated because she
altered financial documents during her branch’s audit. This is a gender-neutral, nondiscriminatory
reason for terminating an employee. Thus, Defendant meets its burden.
Otte fails to present evidence demonstrating pretext.
Defendant is entitled to summary judgment because Otte has not come forward with
evidence from which a reasonable jury could conclude that Defendant’s gender-neutral reason for
dismissal is merely a pretext for concealing intentional gender discrimination. Gad, 2016 WL
74399, at *15. A plaintiff may demonstrate pretext by pointing to facts that a factfinder could rely
on to conclude that defendant’s stated reason is unworthy of belief. Kendrick v. Penske Transp.
Servs., Inc., 220 F.3d 1220, 1230 (10th Cir. 2000). This can be done by pointing to “weaknesses,
implausibilities, inconsistencies, incoherencies or contradictions” in the stated reason that a
reasonable factfinder could find it unworthy of credence. EEOC v. P.V.N.F., LLC, 487 F.3d 790,
801 (10th Cir. 2007) (quotation omitted). Pretext may also be shown by providing direct evidence
discrediting the proffered rationale, or by showing that the plaintiff was treated differently from
other similarly situated employees. Cox v. Lockheed Martin Corp., 545 F. App’x 766, 770 (10th
Otte’s argument on this issue is difficult to follow. Otte essentially argues that she received
permission from Batch (Otte’s supervisor) and Henderson-Smith (internal auditor) to complete
and turn in delinquent cover sheets during the audit and was then fired for doing so. See Doc. 89
at 11-13. But Otte’s argument is not supported by the record.
Otte relies primarily on her deposition testimony, where she testified:
And [Henderson-Smith] went through the list, I gave her everything
she needed. I told her that on my teller audits, I had them done, but
I didn’t have all the cover sheets on them for that quarter.
[Henderson-Smith] said that was fine . . . . So, I got her what she
needed and left.
The next day . . . [Henderson-Smith] asked me for the audits that the
day prior she had said she didn’t need because she was reviewing
the previous quarter . . . .
So I, again, I told her I did not have the cover sheets on them. I had
the audits themselves done, they were inputted into the teller audit
system, but I didn’t have the cover sheets done.
[Henderson-Smith] told me as long as I had them to her by 5:00 or
by the time she left that day, it would be fine.
Doc. 89-1 at 157:1-21. But this testimony does not establish that Otte asked Henderson-Smith, or
received permission from Henderson-Smith, to alter or finalize incomplete documents. It merely
establishes that Henderson-Smith gave Otte until 5:00 to turn in the incomplete cover sheets.
Regardless, Henderson-Smith did not initiate Otte’s termination—Otte’s supervisor
(Batch) did.6 Batch was informed that an audit form had been altered between day one and day
two of the audit, and the altered documents were furnished to Batch. Batch then notified Watson
and Beahm-Lemmer and shared information of the alteration. Batch recommended that Otte be
terminated, and Watson and Beahm-Lemmer agreed. Otte presents no evidence to suggest that she
asked, or received permission from Batch,7 Watson, or Beahm-Lemmer, to alter or finalize
incomplete documents. And it is uncontroverted that Batch, Watson, and Beahm-Lemmer were
uninvolved in the decision to perform the audit, the performance of the audit, and the findings of
Henderson-Smith. Thus, Otte has not established that Defendant was inconsistent in terminating
her for providing false information to the internal auditor in violation of Defendant’s internal audit
Otte also attempts to minimize the importance of cover sheets and argues that late cover
sheets do not affect an audit.8 This argument is without merit. In analyzing a plaintiff’s claim of
Otte testified that she does not believe that Henderson-Smith discriminated or retaliated against her. Doc. 89-1 at
The only evidence Otte presents shows that she simply notified Batch that “she was behind for that quarter’s audit.”
Doc. 89 at 15.
Otte fails to controvert Defendant’s SOF ¶ 33, which establishes that Henderson-Smith discovered altered Cash
Drawer Audit Forms—not “cover sheets.” The deposition testimony Otte cites to controvert this statement does
pretext, the court examines the facts as they appear to the individual making the termination
decision; the court’s role is not to “second guess” the employer’s business judgment. Dewitt v. Sw.
Bell Tel. Co., 845 F.3d 1299, 1307 (10th Cir. 2017). Nor is the court’s role to ask whether the
decision was wise, fair, or correct. Id. Rather, the court must determine whether the employer
honestly believed the legitimate, non-retaliatory reason it gave for its conduct and acted in good
faith on that belief. Id.
And here, it is uncontroverted that Defendant’s policy regarding internal audits strictly
prohibits “mak[ing] any changes to any documentation,” and that “all documentation must be
presented ‘as is.’” Henderson-Smith identified and reported altered Cash Drawer Audit Forms
during the audit. And Otte has not presented any evidence from which a reasonable jury could
conclude that Batch, Watson, or Beahm-Lemmer did not have a good faith basis to believe that
Otte had inappropriately altered documents. Accordingly, the uncontroverted material facts
establish that Defendant honestly believed the legitimate, non-retaliatory reason it gave for its
conduct and acted in good faith on that belief.
Otte also argues that she was treated differently from a male manager, Chris Hunter, who
allegedly provided late cover sheets during an audit. To succeed on this theory, Otte must present
evidence to demonstrate that she was treated differently from other similarly-situated nonprotected
employees who violated work rules of comparable seriousness. Grant v. Crystal Lake Partners,
Inc., 460 F. Supp. 3d 1155, 1164 (D. Kan. 2020). Similarly-situated employees are those who deal
with the same supervisor and are subject to the same standards governing performance evaluation
and discipline. Aramburu v. The Boeing Co., 112 F.3d 1398, 1404 (10th Cir. 1997). A court should
not actually reference the scope of what Otte provided Henderson-Smith or specifically dispute that HendersonSmith identified altered Cash Drawer Audit Forms. See Doc. 89 at 3; Doc. 89-1 at 194:21-195:14.
compare the relevant employment circumstances, such as work history and company policies
applicable to the plaintiff and the intended comparable employee. Robinson v. City of Ark. City,
Kan., 986 F. Supp. 2d 1020, 1040 (D. Kan. 2012).
Here, Otte presents no evidence regarding Hunter’s supervisor, the performance evaluation
and discipline standards he was subject to, or his work history. Otte does present evidence
suggesting that Hunter had received two Level 2 written warnings, but Otte had received four by
the time of her termination. And Otte provides no context by which the Court could infer whether
Hunter’s warnings arose out of similar circumstances or were of a similar severity or were similarly
close in time. See, e.g., Flanagan v. ScriptPro, LLC, 2019 WL 1003403, at *8 (D. Kan. 2019)
(concluding that plaintiff failed to demonstrate pretext when plaintiff did not show that intended
comparable employees shared the same supervisor as plaintiff or that their conduct was of
comparable seriousness); see also Morgan v. Hilti, 108 F.3d 1319, 1324 (10th Cir. 1997) (“Even
though all doubts concerning pretext must be resolved in plaintiff’s favor, a plaintiff’s allegations
alone will not defeat summary judgment.”).
Finally, to the extent Otte argues that she was replaced by a male with no banking
experience, the Court finds that Otte has again failed to demonstrate pretext. Otte alleges in her
statement of additional facts that she was replaced by a “male employee” who was “less qualified
and had no experience in banking or in management.” Doc. 89 at 9 (citing Doc. 89-1 at 42:1643:6). The only support Otte offers for this statement of fact is the following excerpt from her
On what basis do you conclude that he was less qualified
No banking experience. No management experience.
And on what basis do you conclude he had no banking
I know him personally.
Is that the full and complete basis?
On what basis do you conclude he has no management
From conversations with him personally.
Is that the full and complete basis of your conclusion?
Doc. 89-1 at 42:16-43:6.
But this testimony merely establishes that she believes the individual who was selected to
replace her was less qualified than she is based on her personal conversations with him. See Doc.
89-1 at 42:16-43:6. Otte has presented no evidence regarding her replacement’s qualifications or
what representations that individual made to Defendant to be selected for the position. Thus, Otte
has failed to present evidence by which a reasonable jury could conclude that she was replaced by
a less-qualified male employee. Livingston v. Sodexo, Inc., 2013 WL 1308292, at *7 (D. Kan.
2013) (holding that plaintiff’s speculation and opinion that she was replaced by a less qualified
white male, without providing evidence that he lacked the necessary qualifications, is insufficient
to establish a factual dispute regarding pretext); cf. Velasquez v. Philips Electronics N.A. Corp.,
2015 WL 505628, at *7 (D. Kan. 2015) (holding plaintiff failed to establish prima facie case of
age discrimination when plaintiff presented no evidence identifying plaintiff’s replacement or
establishing that replacement was younger).
Accordingly, the record lacks evidence from which a reasonable jury could find that
Defendant’s articulated reason for Otte’s termination was mere pretext. Because Otte cannot
establish pretext, the Court grants Defendant’s motion for summary judgment on Otte’s Title VII
gender discrimination claim.
Defendant is entitled to summary judgment on Kay’s § 1981 retaliation claim.
The Court next addresses Kay’s § 1981 retaliation claim. Kay argues Defendant terminated
her employment in retaliation for her protected expressions of concern as to a matter relating to
the race of her subordinate employees. Doc. 80 at 9. Specifically, Kay contends that Defendant
wanted to terminate two of her subordinate employees—Harris, who is African-American, and
Reyes, who is Hispanic. Kay affirmatively sought for Defendant to retain Reyes, but her efforts
were rejected by management, with the stated rationale that to retain Reyes would provide Harris
the opportunity to lodge a viable claim of race discrimination. Kay took issue with this reasoning,
but her position was rejected. Kay asserts that she was discharged based upon an illegitimate and
groundless rationale and Defendant skipped otherwise recognized steps within its own
progression/corrective disciplinary policy. Id. at 5-6.
Defendant contends that Kay’s actions do not constitute protected activity sufficient to
support her claims. Defendant further contends that, even if the Court were to find that Kay
engaged in protected activity, these actions were not the reason for her termination, and, rather,
Kay was terminated due to her disregard of security protocols, which compromised her
subordinates’ physical safety. As such, Defendant argues that Kay cannot establish the requisite
causal connection to show a prima facie case or present evidence of pretext. Because Kay does not
supply direct evidence of retaliation, the court must analyze Kay’s claim under the McDonnell
Douglas burden-shifting framework set forth above. Loudon v. K.C. Rehab. Hospital, Inc., 339 F.
Supp. 3d 1231, 1237 (D. Kan. 2018).
Kay cannot establish a prima facie case of retaliation because she did
not engage in a protected activity.
To prove a prima facie claim for retaliation under § 1981, the plaintiff must show: (1) she
engaged in protected activity; (2) she suffered a materially adverse employment action; and (3) a
causal connection exists between the protected activity and the adverse action. Id. The parties do
not dispute that Kay’s termination constitutes a material adverse employment action, satisfying the
second element of her prima facie case. But the parties do dispute whether Kay engaged in
protected activity sufficient to satisfy the first element of her claims.
Protected opposition can range from filing formal charges to voicing informal complaints
to superiors. Hertz v. Luzenac Am., Inc., 370 F.3d 1014, 1015 (10th Cir. 2004). In the case of
informal complaints, there is no clear rule for the level of specificity required. Garcia–Paz v. Swift
Textiles, Inc., 873 F. Supp. 547, 560 (D. Kan. 1995). However, verbal remarks and statements
must sufficiently convey concerns about the unlawfulness of an employer’s conduct. Fisher v.
Univ. of Kan. Facilities Operations, 2011 WL 5686349, at *11 (D. Kan. 2011). The relevant
question is “whether the employee’s communications to the employer sufficiently convey the
employee’s reasonable concerns that the employer has acted or is acting in an unlawful
discriminatory manner.” Garcia-Paz, 873 F. Supp. at 560.
Here, Kay claims that she engaged in protected opposition to racial discrimination when
she discussed the discipline of Harris and Reyes with Beahm-Lemmer. Kay was “okay” with the
termination of Harris but “strongly opposed” the termination of Reyes. Kay claims she “very
clearly raised” her concerns about terminating Reyes to Beahm-Lemmer. Specifically, Kay
I expressed my concern that [Reyes] was a—not a tenured associate,
very short tenured associate that seemed to have one issue or main
concern, which was attendance. And I felt that could be resolved
with some coaching and development. [Harris] I was in agreement
with, simply because she was more tenured, she had multiple
corrective actions consistently in the 2-1/2 years, approximately,
that I had managed her.
Doc. 90-1 at 138:17-25.
Beahm-Lemmer then explained to Kay that, because Harris was of “protected status,”
Defendant could be opened to a discrimination suit if both associates were not terminated. BeahmLemmer testified that “protected status” was only in reference to Harris’s “over-40 status.”9 Doc.
85-3 at 65:6-67:10. The only evidence Kay offers in an attempt to controvert these facts is the
following exchange from her deposition testimony:
When I was told to terminate both associates, I objected and
protested to the termination of one of the associates. I raised
concerns very clearly with that and was told it was required
for me to terminate both associates.
It was clear that it was being driven by Cheryl’s race of being
a black woman. And that if I did not terminate both
associates, I would open the bank to a discrimination suit.
Those were exact words.
What were exact words? And whose words were they?
And what were Lynda’s exact words?
That I had to terminate both associates. And because of
Cheryl’s protected status if I did not terminate both
associates, it was going to open the bank to a discrimination
Doc. 90-1 at 136:5-25.
I.e., protected by the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967.
Based on these facts, no reasonable jury could find that Kay sufficiently conveyed her
concerns that Defendant was acting in an unlawful discriminatory manner. Kay’s testimony merely
establishes that she interpreted Beahm-Lemmer’s comments as implicating race as a factor in the
decision to terminate Harris and Reyes. However, Kay presents no evidence to establish that Kay
conveyed her concerns about making an employment decision based on race to Beahm-Lemmer—
or that race was even discussed. Indeed, Kay testified that she did not recall Beahm-Lemmer
referencing race, and that she personally “did not reference race” during their discussion of Harris
and Reyes. Doc. 90-1 at 15:4-18. And the only reasoning Kay gave for not wanting to fire Reyes
was that Reyes was more coachable than Harris. Additionally, Plaintiff went on to send emails to
Stone recommending termination of Harris and Reyes. Neither email contains any reference to
race or discrimination.
Although the Court recognizes that Kay is not required to speak with the clarity or precision
of a lawyer, the Court finds that she did not sufficiently convey her concerns that Defendant was
acting in an unlawful discriminatory manner. Saying not to fire someone because she had
“potential” compared to another employee is not a protected activity because it does not convey a
reasonable concern regarding race discrimination. Accordingly, Kay cannot establish that she was
engaged in a protected activity. See Brown v. Keystone Learning Servs., 2018 WL 6042592, at *8
(D. Kan. 2018) (holding that employee did not engage in protected activity by having attorney
write a letter challenging employee’s termination under the terms of employment contract when
letter did not infer nor mention that termination decision was unlawful under Title VII); cf. GarciaPaz, 873 F. Supp. at 559 (noting that ADEA retaliation claims do not extend to persons “who
simply champion the cause of an older worker, even if the advocate acts out of an unarticulated
belief that the employer is discriminating on the basis of age”).
Defendant has a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for Kay’s
Even if Kay could establish a prima facie case, Defendant articulates a legitimate,
nondiscriminatory reason for Kay’s termination. Establishing a legitimate, nondiscriminatory
reason is a burden of production and “can involve no credibility assessment.” Reeves v. Sanderson
Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 142 (2000). Here, Defendant argues that it terminated Kay’s
employment for unsatisfactory performance as a result of not following security protocol around
branch opening procedures. Kay instructed her associates on more than one occasion to enter the
banking branch without the required second opener present in the parking lot. She also instructed
them not to contact Defendant’s internal security department that would normally observe their
entry via video when a second associate is not available. And when questioned about this event,
Defendant found that Kay was not being completely honest which created an integrity issue. These
are legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for terminating Kay’s employment. Thus, Defendant
meets its burden.
Kay cannot establish pretext.
Because Kay failed to establish a prima facie case, summary judgment is appropriate. But,
even assuming Kay could establish all of the elements of her prima facie case, Kay’s claim also
fails because Kay has not shown that Defendant’s legitimate non-discriminatory reason is
pretextual. A plaintiff will avoid summary judgment only if she can show that the defendant’s
explanation is mere pretext—that is, that the defendant’s asserted reason was not the “true reason”
for her termination. Loudon, 339 F. Supp. 3d at 1237. The plaintiff can meet this burden by
showing: (1) that the defendant’s proffered reason is factually false; or (2) that retaliation was a
primary factor in the decision, which can be established by showing “weaknesses, implausibilities,
inconsistencies, incoherencies, or contradictions” in the defendant’s reason, such that “a
reasonable fact finder could deem [the defendant’s] reason unworthy of credence.” Tabor v. Hilti,
Inc., 703 F.3d 1206, 1218 (10th Cir. 2013) (internal quotations omitted). Speculation that an
explanation is pretext is insufficient, as is evidence that the employer was mistaken or used poor
business judgment—it does not matter whether the proffered reason was “wise, fair or correct.”
Anderson v. Coors Brewing Co., 181 F.3d 1171, 1179 (10th Cir. 1999); Swackhammer v.
Sprint/United Mgmt. Co., 493 F.3d 1160, 1169-70 (10th Cir. 2007). Rather, the relevant inquiry is
whether the employer honestly believed those reasons and acted in good faith upon its beliefs.
Swackhammer, 493 F.3d at 1170.
Here, the uncontroverted evidence supports Defendant’s proffered reason for Plaintiff’s
termination, and Kay’s evidence is insufficient to create a genuine issue of material fact as to
pretext. First, Defendant is consistent in its concerns regarding the reasons for Kay’s termination.
The undisputed evidence shows that Defendant promptly placed Kay on paid administrative leave
and investigated the reports from Harris and Reyes that Kay failed to follow security protocol and
placed them in a “risky position.” Defendant spoke with Kay to get her side of the story, and she
confirmed there were two occasions in January 2019 when she permitted an associate to enter the
branch when there was only that associate present. Defendant also reviewed text messages,
collected information from other partners, contacted the security department, and reviewed
security photos from the branches. Defendant’s investigation confirmed that Kay had instructed
her subordinates to act contrary to Defendant’s security protocols, and that Kay had not been
completely honest10 with Beahm-Lemmer and Stone during their meeting. Kay has presented no
evidence to suggest that there were any different or additional reasons for her termination.
Kay does not attempt to controvert Defendant’s SOF ¶ 43 regarding Kay’s representation to Beahm-Lemmer and
Stone about a phone call Kay made to Harris on January 14 immediately prior to Harris entering the branch at 8:28
a.m. According to Beahm-Lemmer, Kay represented that she told Harris to enter the branch because she was on
her way to the branch and would be pulling into the parking lot when Harris entered. And it is uncontroverted that
Kay argues that her termination violated Defendant’s progressive discipline procedures
because she was on no progressive discipline at the time of her termination. But failure to
implement progressive discipline is not evidence of pretext if the progressive discipline policy is
entirely discretionary. Montoya v. Jacobs Tech., Inc., 764 F. App’x 830, 835-36 (10th Cir. 2019).
And here, it is uncontroverted that Defendant’s progressive discipline policy provides for
immediate termination if the behavior or action “is determined to be severe enough,” even if the
employee has not received a Level 1 or 2 Written Warning. In contemplating Kay’s proper
discipline, Defendant specifically determined that Kay was not placed on a Level 2 Written
Warning due to the severity of the offenses and the fact that Defendant’s officers and managers
are held to a higher performance standard than the associates they manage. As stated above, it is
not the Court’s role to “second guess” the employer’s business judgment, or to ask whether the
decision was wise, fair, or correct. Dewitt, 845 F.3d at 1307. Thus, Defendant’s use of discretion
was consistent with its progressive discipline policy and cannot establish pretext. See Montoya,
764 F. App’x at 836.
Finally, Kay argues that she was treated differently from other similarly-situated
employees. In support, Kay cites her deposition testimony where she states that: (1) Stone admitted
to Kay that other associates and managers “have done the same thing or worse” and have not been
fired; (2) she had personal knowledge of other managers and associates who were in the same
situations and did not face the same type of reprimand that she did; and (3) a coworker laughed
and told Kay that he had been with Defendant for 25 years and had done far worse. See Doc. 90 at
7-8. This testimony is insufficient to establish that she was treated differently from similarly
Defendant’s investigation revealed that on January 14 at 8:41 a.m., Kay actually entered a different branch,
approximately 11 miles away. Moreover, it is uncontroverted that Harris disclaimed that such a call took place,
and that Kay could not provide Defendant with a record of such call.
situated employees. Kay does not identify any of the employees whom she considers similarly
situated. She presents no evidence regarding these employees’ supervisors or their standards
governing performance evaluation and discipline. And she provides no details by which a
reasonable jury could conclude that these employees violated work rules of comparable
seriousness. Kay only presents general, unsubstantiated allegations of different treatment. This is
insufficient to establish pretext. Koppenhaver v. Unified Sch. Dist. No. 500, 2013 WL 1704917, at
*5 (D. Kan. 2013) (holding that general allegations of different treatment with no further detail
regarding who these employees are or why they are similarly situated “is insufficient to raise a
viable claim of discrimination because they are wholly conclusory and provide only a formulaic
recitation of the elements of a claim”).
The alleged inconsistencies raised by Kay are simply too minor to give rise to an inference
of pretext. Lucas v. Dover Corp., Norris Div., 857 F.2d 1397, 1402 (10th Cir. 1988) (concluding
instances of alleged contradictions and inconsistencies were too insubstantial to allow a reasonable
jury to infer pretext). Although inferences are to be resolved in favor of the plaintiff, a court “is
‘not required to evaluate every conceivable inference which can be drawn from evidentiary matter,
but only reasonable ones.’ ” Id. at 1401 (quoting Matthews v. Allis-Chalmers, 769 F.2d 1215, 1218
(7th Cir. 1985)). Kay has not shown that Defendant’s proffered reason is factually false, nor has
she shown such “weaknesses, implausibilities, inconsistencies, incoherencies, or contradictions”
that a reasonable jury could determine Defendant’s reason lacks credibility. Tabor, 703 F.3d at
1218. For this additional reason, summary judgment is proper on Kay’s § 1981 retaliation claim.
Kay has not shown a prima facie case of discrimination. And neither Plaintiff has shown
pretext. Thus, Defendant is entitled to summary judgment on these claims. Because the Court
grants summary judgment to Defendant, it denies the motion to sever as moot and without
THE COURT THEREFORE ORDERS that Defendant’s motion for summary judgment on
all claims asserted by Plaintiff Danielle Otte Doc. 82) is GRANTED. Judgment is to be entered
for Defendant on Otte’s claims of gender discrimination and retaliation under Title VII.
THE COURT FURTHER ORDERS that Defendant’s motion for summary judgment on
all claims asserted by Plaintiff Amber Kay (Doc. 84) is GRANTED. Judgment is to be entered for
Defendant on Kay’s claim of retaliation under 42 U.S.C. § 1981.
THE COURT FURTHER ORDERS that Defendant’s Renewed Motion to Sever (Doc. 86)
is DENIED as moot and without prejudice.
IT IS SO ORDERED.
Dated: June 4, 2021
/s/ Holly L. Teeter
HOLLY L. TEETER
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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