Judge dismisses Trigiani lawsuit against New Peoples Bank
Russell County-based bank wins summary judgment
A federal judge issued a summary judgment last week, dismissing all claims in former executive Mary Y. Trigiani’s lawsuit against Russell County-based New Peoples Bank for discrimination and wrongful termination. Trigiani’s complaints of a “cultlike office culture” did not hold up to judicial scrutiny, U.S. District Judge James P. Jones ruled.
A Big Stone Gap native, sister of bestselling author Adriana Trigiani and former Virginia Bar Association president Pia Trigiani, Mary Trigiani was employed as New Peoples Bank’s senior vice president of strategic planning and development from 2017 to 2019. Trigiani founded a consulting practice, Spada Inc., in 1990 and has served on multiple advisory and nonprofit boards, including the GO Virginia Region One Technology Working Group. Before joining NPB full-time, she was a contracted consultant for the bank.
In January 2021, Trigiani sued New Peoples Bank in U.S. Western District Court of Virginia, claiming that she was discriminated against because of her Catholic, nonevangelical religious beliefs, her age and her gender. She characterized the bank’s culture as akin to a cult, claiming that NPB President and CEO C. Todd Asbury, who also serves as senior pastor of Adoration Church in Bristol, “encouraged a cultlike office culture by opposing individualistic thinking/ideas, penalizing or ostracizing employees who did not follow to the letter the certain cultural-religious tenets (such as the subjugation of women), expecting a slavish devotion to the NPB Cult, avoiding what he considered to be worldly/contemporary activities, and rewarding blind allegiance.”
However, on April 20, Jones ruled in favor of the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, writing, “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.”
“We are very pleased with the outcome of the lawsuit,” Asbury said in a statement. “It has been our position since the day it was filed that this lawsuit was frivolous and the claims were false, and it is great to see that justice has finally been served. It is unfortunate that the bank and its employees have had to endure this unnecessary disruption to serving our customers’ banking needs.”
Trigiani had argued that she was terminated “because she is a strong woman,” according to the ruling, “a ‘bold … loud-speaking, emphatic person and that does not jive with their definition of femininity,'” but the judge wrote that “no one complained … that Trigiani was a strong woman. Rather, she was accused of yelling and raising her voice, slamming her door, and belittling her colleagues and making them cry.” The judge noted that she “admitted that such conduct would be inappropriate in the workplace, regardless of gender,” and her claim that male executives acted similarly “lacks any evidentiary support.”
Also, her claims of religious discrimination did not hold up, the judge ruled, noting that several board members who approved her hiring and firing are also Catholic.
Thomas E. Strelka of Roanoke-based Strelka Employment Law, who represents Trigiani, said she is “currently weighing all options,” including a possible appeal. “Ms. Trigiani had strong claims, and we believe that her claims were struck in error. As alleged, she was treated in a discriminatory fashion.”
Trigiani had dropped earlier claims of alleged hostile work environment harassment and age discrimination, and Jones dismissed her remaining claims in the April 20 ruling. The bank, represented by O’Hagan Meyer, contended that Trigiani had been chosen for termination as part of a workforce reduction “because of her high salary and performance issues,” according to the judgment.
At least 10 employees complained about her behavior, saying that Trigiani often lost her temper, the judgment said, and Asbury met with Trigiani to discuss the complaints in December 2018 and had ordered another employee to draft a separation agreement. At the time of Trigiani’s June 2019 separation from the bank, 10 other staff positions were eliminated, nine of which were held by women, and in 2020, 30 more people were laid off, including four senior male executives, according to the judgment.
Jones wrote in the ruling that the bank met its burden to show that its workforce reduction was conducted to reduce headcount and debt, “and that it based its selection criteria on cost and job performance — both valid, nondiscriminatory bases.”
By the end of 2020, NPB had 189 employees, down from 371 employees in 2008, and the bank did not report positive earnings until 2021, the ruling said.