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McKinney v. Kansas City Automotive Company Limited Partnership

United States District Court, D. Kansas

March 8, 2018

Michael McKinney, Plaintiff,
Kansas City Automotive Company Limited Partnership d/b/a Hendrick Lexus Kansas City, Defendant.


          John W. Lungstrum, United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff and his wife, Katherine McKinney, who is not a party to this lawsuit, are both former employees of defendant. Defendant terminated Ms. McKinney in January 2015 and, in May 2015, Ms. McKinney filed a charge of discrimination alleging sex discrimination and retaliation. Plaintiff was still employed by defendant at that time. In late October 2015, plaintiff participated in defendant's investigation into the allegations contained in Ms. McKinney's charge of discrimination. Less than six weeks later, defendant terminated plaintiff's employment.

         Plaintiff filed this lawsuit against defendant asserting two distinct theories of retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. First, plaintiff contends that defendant terminated his employment in retaliation for plaintiff's engaging in protected activity-namely, plaintiff's participation in the investigation of his wife's charge and/or his opposition to discrimination against his wife. Second, plaintiff contends that defendant terminated his employment in retaliation for Ms. McKinney's filing a charge of discrimination. This matter is presently before the court on defendant's motion for summary judgment (doc. 47). As will be explained, the motion is denied.

         I. Facts

         The following facts are uncontroverted, stipulated in the pretrial order, or related in the light most favorable to plaintiff as the nonmoving party. Defendant Kansas City Automobile Company Limited Partnership operates as a retail automobile dealership doing business as Hendrick Lexus Kansas City. Plaintiff Michael McKinney began his employment with the defendant in May 2001 at its dealership location in Merriam, Kansas. At some point, plaintiff began working as one of two Pre-Owned Sales Managers and he remained in that position throughout 2015, until the termination of his employment in December 2015. Plaintiff's wife, Katherine McKinney, began her employment with defendant in approximately 1995. Most recently, Ms. McKinney was employed as a Finance Manager at the Merriam dealership until her employment was terminated in early January 2015. Phil Humbert was defendant's General Manager from December 2000 until the termination of his employment on September 30, 2015.

         Mr. Humbert terminated Ms. McKinney's employment in January 2015. At that time, Ms. McKinney began working at Bob Allen Ford, another dealership in the Kansas City area. In May 2015, defendant received notice that Ms. McKinney had filed a charge of discrimination alleging, among other things, that defendant (and, more specifically, Mr. Humbert) had terminated her employment because of her pregnancy and in retaliation for exercising her rights under the FMLA. In late October 2015, a mediation of Ms. McKinney's charge was held at the EEOC's Kansas City, Kansas office.[1] Ms. McKinney was represented by counsel and defendant was represented by outside counsel and Jenny Mann, a Human Resources manager employed by Hendrick Automotive Group, a company that provides various management services to defendant. The mediation did not resolve Ms. McKinney's charge and, after the mediation session, Ms. Mann went to the Merriam dealership to meet with witnesses whom she believed might have information relevant to Ms. McKinney's charge.

         As part of her investigation into Ms. McKinney's claims against the dealership, Ms. Mann met with plaintiff. During that interview, plaintiff told Ms. Mann that he had heard that Mr. Humbert had referred to his wife as a “bitch” and had said that he was going to “fire that bitch” when she returned from maternity leave. Plaintiff advised Ms. Mann that he believed his wife had been fired unjustly and he expressed how upset he was that his wife was singled out during a managers' meeting on the day of her discharge and told to “sit the fuck down.” As plaintiff continued to tell Ms. Mann how he felt about the termination of his wife's employment, he became emotional and started to tear up. Ms. Mann then told him that was “enough, ” and ended the meeting.

         Around this same time, Ms. McKinney purchased a new Ford Explorer from Bob Allen Ford, her employer, and traded in her 2015 Lexus RX 350, a transaction that began in August or September 2015 when Ms. McKinney placed an order through Bob Allen Ford to build a Ford Explorer with the specific options she wanted. As a Pre-Owned Sales Manager, plaintiff had the authority to buy, sell, and price used vehicles and trade-ins, from both customers and other dealerships. In September 2015, plaintiff, on defendant's behalf, submitted a buy bid to Bob Allen Ford for the vehicle that his wife planned to trade in when her Explorer was ready. Plaintiff testified that he sought and received approval from Mr. Humbert, who was still employed at that time, prior to submitting the bid.[2] It is uncontroverted that plaintiff discussed the buy bid with Brian Exposito, the dealership's other Pre-Owned Sales Manager, who agreed with plaintiff that the price plaintiff suggested for the vehicle ($45, 000) was the appropriate price for the vehicle. Bob Allen accepted the offer.

         Ms. McKinney accepted delivery of her new Explorer on October 31, 2015. The Lexus that she had traded in to Bob Allen Ford came into defendant's inventory on November 6, 2015 and plaintiff completed a Pre-Owned Worksheet at that time, indicating that the vehicle had been obtained from Bob Allen Ford. Plaintiff assigned a stock number to the vehicle, placed it on the showroom floor and made it available for sale. Plaintiff also advised the sales staff that the RX350 that he had purchased from Bob Allen Ford was his wife's former Lexus and was on the lot as new inventory.

         On December 2, 2015, plaintiff learned that Bob Allen Ford was ready to deliver the title to the RX350 to the dealership. On that same day, plaintiff submitted a check request to pay for the vehicle so that he could have the check ready when the title was delivered. When the dealership's office manager presented Nick Karras, the General Manager who replaced Mr. Humbert in early October 2015, with the check for his signature, she advised him that plaintiff needed the check “immediately” and wanted the check hand-delivered to Bob Allen Ford that same day.

         Mr. Karras testified that the check request raised a “red flag” in his mind because the purchase order for the vehicle was dated November 6, 2015, but the check request was being processed nearly a month later and was a “hand-delivery” request-all of which he considered atypical. It is undisputed that Mr. Karras was also concerned about the price that the dealership was paying for the vehicle and that he believed the price was roughly $5000 higher than what the vehicle was worth. Mr. Karras called plaintiff and asked whether plaintiff “had too much in an RX350” that plaintiff had purchased for the dealership and whether the car had been priced correctly. In response, plaintiff advised Mr. Karras that he was comfortable with the price, that the dealership needed RXs, and that he could sell it. Plaintiff did not advise Mr. Karras that the vehicle was his wife's former vehicle because, according to plaintiff, he did not realize that Mr. Karras was talking about that particular vehicle. Mr. Karras signed the check.

         Later that afternoon, on December 2, 2015, Mr. Karras saw the title to the vehicle and realized that Ms. McKinney's name was on the title as the registered lessee. He also learned at that time that Ms. McKinney was working at Bob Allen Ford as the Finance Manager. Mr. Karras called plaintiff again and asked him why he had not mentioned to Mr. Karras during their previous conversation that the vehicle belonged to his wife and whether anyone else knew about the car being purchased from Bob Allen Ford. Plaintiff told Mr. Karras that Mr. Humbert had given plaintiff approval to purchase the vehicle.

         The following day, December 3, 2015, Mr. Karras notified Ms. Mann that he was suspending plaintiff “from working on any transactions as he is manipulating our profitability.” He then called Mr. Humbert to ask whether he had approved the purchase of the vehicle. Mr. Humbert denied knowing anything about the transaction. Mr. Karras shared that discussion with Ms. Mann, who told Mr. Karras to obtain written confirmation from Mr. Humbert that he had not authorized the transaction. Mr. Humbert sent an email to Mr. Karras confirming that he had no knowledge of the transaction. On the evening of December 3, 2015, Mr. Karras sent an email to Ms. Mann requesting that defendant terminate plaintiff's employment in light of the fact that plaintiff was “deceptive” and exercised poor judgment that impacted the profitability of the dealership.

         On Friday, December 4, 2015, Mr. Karras met with plaintiff and advised him that he was suspending plaintiff for purchasing the RX350 because plaintiff did “not have a form signed.” Plaintiff testified that he asked Mr. Karras several times what form he meant because he had no knowledge of any form that was required. According to plaintiff, Mr. Karras did not elaborate but suspended plaintiff. When plaintiff asked whether defendant intended to terminate his employment, Mr. Karras advised him that he would get back to him. On Monday, December 7, 2015, Mr. Karras met with plaintiff and terminated his employment after consultation with Ms. Mann and John Desmond, the Market Vice President for Hendrick Automotive Group. It is uncontroverted that Mr. ...

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