Cutright v. Metropolitan Life Ins. Co.

Decision Date11 July 1997
Docket NumberNos. 23884,23956,s. 23884
Citation491 S.E.2d 308,201 W.Va. 50
CourtWest Virginia Supreme Court
Parties, 77 Fair Empl.Prac.Cas. (BNA) 57, 71 Empl. Prac. Dec. P 44,955 William E. CUTRIGHT, Appellant v. METROPOLITAN LIFE INSURANCE COMPANY, et al., Appellees. William E. CUTRIGHT, Appellee v. METROPOLITAN LIFE INSURANCE COMPANY, et al., Appellants.

Syllabus by the Court

1. The Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution, Article VI, Clause 2, invalidates state laws that interfere with or are contrary to federal law.

2. When a workplace is permeated with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule and insult that is sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim's employment and create an abusive working environment, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. (1994), is violated.

3. Insofar as any provision of W.Va. code § 33-12A-1 et seq. conflicts with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. (1994), Title VII controls pursuant to the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution, and, therefore, an insurance company may terminate the employment of an insurance agent for creating a discriminatorily hostile or abusive work environment.

Catherine D. Munster, Harold M. Sklar, McNeer, Highland, McMunn & Varner, L.C. Clarksburg, for Cutright.

Jeffrey A. Kimble, Shawn Angus Morgan, Robinson & McElwee Clarksburg, Christopher C. Russell, Porter, Wright, Morris & Arthur, Columbus, Ohio, for Metropolitan, Schlegel & Thomas.

MAYNARD, Justice:

William E. Cutright sued Metropolitan Life Insurance Company (Metropolitan), Regional Manager Michael A. Schlegel and Branch Manager William Thomas for damages arising out of the termination of his employment as an insurance agent with Metropolitan. Both Cutright and Metropolitan filed motions for summary judgment in the Circuit Court of Harrison County, West Virginia. The circuit court granted both sides partial summary relief; however, the questions relating to damages for termination of employment in violation of state law and for accumulated vacation pay were presented before a jury. The jury awarded damages in the amount of $1,010,221.01. Judgment for this amount plus costs and attorney fees was entered against Metropolitan, whose motions for judgment notwithstanding the verdict and a new trial were denied.

Cutright appeals to this Court, requesting that the circuit court's granting of partial summary judgment to Metropolitan, Schlegel and Thomas be reversed. Metropolitan cross-appeals, requesting that the circuit court's granting of summary judgment regarding liability for termination in violation of state law be reversed. These cases have been consolidated on appeal. We believe the court's ruling on the issue of liability should be reversed, but the remainder of the court's summary judgment rulings should be affirmed. Therefore, we affirm in part and reverse in part.

Metropolitan is a mutual life insurance company licensed by the Insurance Commissioner to sell life insurance and sickness and accident insurance in the State of West Virginia. Cutright is a former employee of Metropolitan, who worked for Metropolitan from February 1, 1988, the date he first signed an agreement not to compete, until October 14, 1994. Cutright was employed to work in Metropolitan's Clarksburg, West Virginia, office. Initially, Cutright was employed as an account representative. On January 2, 1989, he was promoted to branch manager. On January 3, 1989, he executed another agreement not to compete. Thereafter, on March 7, 1994, Cutright voluntarily resigned as branch manager and resumed the position of account representative. William Thomas, who had worked as an agent under Cutright, was promoted to the position of branch manager. Cutright held the position of account representative until his employment was terminated by Metropolitan on October 14, 1994, due to insubordination and unprofessional conduct.

After Cutright stepped down from his position as manager, Metropolitan's management began receiving complaints about his hostile, abusive and unprofessional treatment of female co-workers. Margaret Fisher was the branch administrator. Peggy Morris was a senior sales assistant and Sandra Lehosit was a senior clerical sales assistant. The clerical support staff in the Clarksburg office consisted of these three employees, all females. Margaret Fisher stated in her deposition that Cutright repeatedly yelled at the women. Often adding profanity. Fisher also stated he "cursed and yelled and threw things" and even threatened to break the computer. He told one worker her work was "bullshit" and called her a "god-damn-son-of-a-bitch." Thomas, the branch manager, stated in his affidavit that he personally observed Cutright use profanity and yell and curse at the administrative staff. The situation became so bad that the regional manager, Michael Schlegel, asked Fisher and Lehosit to inform him of additional improper behavior.

The clerical employees also complained about the vacation policy that Cutright initiated and enforced. Initially, Cutright told the female clerical workers they could have no more than two weeks of vacation in a row, no more than two weeks of vacation in a given month, and no vacation could be taken in October, November and December. He later changed the policy to no more than five days of vacation in a row, no more than two weeks of vacation a month, the weeks could not be together, and no vacation time off in October, November, and December. In June 1990, Sandra Lehosit and her husband made vacation plans in advance. Lehosit's husband was a factory worker, whose schedule was not flexible, so he did not have the option of changing his vacation plans. Because of the vacation policy change imposed by Cutright, Ms. Lehosit was forced to cancel her plans and her husband had to go on his vacation without her.

In September 1994, the regional manager met with the female clerical staff to discuss their concerns about the abusive treatment. That same day, the regional manager and the branch manager met with Cutright to discuss the concerns of the clerical staff and to attempt to clear up the problems. Apparently, the meeting had little or no effect. In early October 1994, less than one month after the meeting where Cutright had been cautioned about such conduct, another incident involving crass, hostile behavior and the use of profanity occurred. One evening, as Cutright was leaving Metropolitan's premises, he stated that Peggy Morris was a "fat ass bitch," and added, "those f______ people are nuts." He admits he made both comments, but states he called Morris only "a fat ass." Finally, Cutright's outrageous treatment of the female clerical employees prompted Margaret Fisher to send an e-mail to Schlegel, informing the regional manager that "the girls are at their breaking point and we cannot continue to take this" kind of treatment from Cutright. One week later, Cutright's employment with Metropolitan was terminated.

The record is replete with numerous other allegations and admissions. Cutright admits he stored and consumed alcohol on company premises in violation of the Manual of Instructions. He also insisted on smoking inside when the company had a no-smoking policy. He signed a policy of insurance affirming he had witnessed the policyholder's signature when, in fact, he had not witnessed the signature.

Cutright also personally retained an assistant, Shellie Davis, to work for him. Davis was previously a Metropolitan employee, whose employment with the company had been terminated. Even though Davis was no longer a Metropolitan employee, Cutright continued to allow her to have full access to Metropolitan's computer system, SONIC. Thomas informed Cutright that Davis could no longer access customer information on the SONIC computer. Schlegel informed Cutright in writing that access to SONIC must be limited to Metropolitan employees because of security reasons and liability concerns. Cutright responded to Schlegel by stating in writing that he would use the computer to enhance his business until he received notice from the legal department notifying all within Metropolitan that this practice was not condoned and must be stopped by all who were utilizing the system. The company sent Cutright a letter, suggesting that Davis become a variable part-time employee. He failed to respond to this suggestion, but contends Davis stopped accessing SONIC on September 20, 1994, the date a region-wide letter was distributed.

At Metropolitan, the branch manager, not account representatives, handle consumer complaints. Nonetheless, Cutright refused to turn over the consumer complaint files that were in his possession when he stepped down from the position of branch manager. He was repeatedly asked to turn over the files, but flatly refused to do so. He even obstinately refused to comply with a direct order of the regional manager. Cutright also admits that when he left Metropolitan, he took with him 2,000 customer files, all client records and "things of that nature" that were in his possession. He repeatedly refused to return the files and records until he was finally ordered by the circuit court to do so.

Sandra Lehosit testified in her deposition that Cutright's wife came into the Metropolitan office openly carrying a pistol in her hand on the day Cutright was terminated. Cutright's wife walked over to Lehosit's desk, pistol in hand, stating she wanted to talk to Lehosit. While standing over the desk and holding the pistol, she stated that it was the women's fault the lives of Cutright, herself, and their children had been ruined by the termination. Lehosit realized Cutright's wife was upset and had a gun; consequently, Lehosit tried to calm her. Ms. Cutright handed the gun to Thomas when he opened the door to his office. She then left, only to return...

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