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This Bad Boss Gave Her Director-Level Work — But Found Reasons Not to Give Her a Matching Title

Crystal Trawick was a homegrown success at Carmike Cinemas, a Georgia-based chain of minor-market movieplexes that drew crowds with its extra activities such as mini golf, rollerskating, and video games.

Ms. Trawick started at Carmike the age of 19 as a part-time laser tag attendant. By the time she left she had been promoted nine times and served as the company’s top marketing official. She reported to Fred Van Noy, Carmike’s chief operating officer, and drew praise from the company’s CEO.

But even though Ms. Trawick functioned as a director-level executive at publicly traded Carmike, Mr. Van Noy declined to give her a title or salary that matched her responsibilities, according to court filings. When she pressed the matter, she was told she’d need a bachelor’s degree to be named as a director — a credential held by neither her boss, who like her had joined Carmike as a teenager, nor by Ms. Trawick’s most obvious male peer at the company, the director of advertising.

Indeed, the marketing job was Carmike’s only director position to require a bachelor’s degree, Mr. Van Noy told a jury — and the requirement was added only after Ms. Trawick had assumed the role on an informal basis.

When Ms. Trawick persisted, Mr. Van Noy became increasingly harsh and demanding with her, according to testimony. He didn’t pass along her complaints of unfairness to Carmike’s H.R. department, he told jurors. And ultimately he launched an investigation into Ms. Trawick’s handling of a minor sponsorship. He fired her for “insubordination” during the probe, he testified — not because he found any wrongdoing.

Fred Van Noy is our new Bad Boss of the Month.

Ms. Trawick filed a lawsuit against Carmike, claiming sexual discrimination, retaliation, and other wrongdoing. In September a federal jury awarded her more than $1.1 million in damages on the discrimination claim, an amount that was slashed to $367,000 based on statutory limits. Carmike didn’t appeal and earlier this year paid Ms. Trawick more than $1 million, an amount that included her substantial legal costs.

A child of divorce and poverty in Alabama, Ms. Trawick had lived in her mother’s car and in shelters until she was adopted at nine by a grandmother who turned out to be abusive — driving her into foster care as a teenager, she testified. Although she won a scholarship to attend Troy State University in Troy, Ala., she dropped out to work at Carmike, which quickly became, she said at trial, “my life.”

Based in Columbus, Ga., just across the Alabama border, the company targeted small markets and called itself “America’s Hometown Theatre.” Ms. Trawick enjoyed a steadily rising career there, gathering experience in film buying, theater operations, and marketing — and also participating in civic organizations and joining local boards, which Carmike CEO David Passman encouraged her to do, according to testimony.

In 2012 Ms. Trawick joined Carmike’s marketing department at the invitation of Mr. Van Noy, he testified — and when he fired the incumbent marketing director not long afterward, he asked her to assume most of the man’s duties. He didn’t upgrade her title, he acknowledged, or give her a raise to reflect her new responsibilities.

At the time Ms. Trawick had just completed an associate’s degree from Chattahoochee Valley Community College by taking classes “here and there as I could” over more than a decade at Carmike, she testified. Mr. Passman, the Carmike CEO, had urged her to “finish” her college education, she testified, so in 2013 she began classes at a nearby Troy campus in pursuit of a bachelor’s degree — but she found the work impossible to complete because of her expanded duties.

“My hours had severely increased,” she testified. “I took two [classes] and I wasn’t able to manage the workload.”

That year Ms. Trawick earned just under $43,000 at Carmike, based on a W-2 form shown at trial, while the fired marketing director had earned at least $95,000 in salary, according to testimony. During an annual review in the second half of 2013, Mr. Van Noy told Ms. Trawick “he did not realize how little I was being paid,” she told jurors — yet his only action was to grant a four-percent bump for her “exceeded expectations” evaluation.

Ms. Trawick continued as Carmike’s de facto marketing director through 2014 and most of 2015, traveling extensively and even attending conference calls from home during her maternity leave under pressure from Mr. Van Noy, she testified. Executives often referred to her as the director of marketing; Mr. Van Noy even introduced her that way publicly during a theater opening, she testified.

Other Carmike officials began to ask Mr. Van Noy why he hadn’t formally promoted their colleague. One division manager, Jim Lucas, testified that Mr. Van Noy said he’d never elevate Ms. Trawick unless he was forced to do so — and gestured upward, indicating that such an order could come only from above.

“And who was up there?” Mr. Lucas was asked.

“Well, it was either [CEO] David Passman or the Lord,” he replied.

According to Mr. Lucas, Mr. Van Noy behaved more harshly in meetings toward Ms. Trawick than toward her male counterpart Shannon Sailors, the company’s director of advertising. At trial, evidence showed that when Mr. Sailors and Ms. Trawick both received positive performance ratings in 2014 — along with identical comments from Mr. Van Noy — Mr. Sailors got a higher percentage raise than Ms. Trawick, expanding the gap in their base salaries to 37 percent.

Asked in front of the jury whether he could explain the discrepancy in raises, Mr. Van Noy said, simply, “No.”

Finally, in August 2015, Ms. Trawick became more aggressive. She had been approached by a headhunter about switching companies, but she wanted to stay at Carmike. At a meeting with Mr. Van Noy, she told jurors, she made what she described as a discrimination complaint, comparing herself to Mr. Sailors and saying she needed the director title and a pay increase.

At trial, Mr. Van Noy denied that Ms. Trawick complained of being underpaid. He admitted that he never discussed her pay or title with Carmike’s H.R. director and that, around that time, he started interviewing a series of men for the director job — or possibly a newly invented senior position above Ms. Trawick. Frustrated, Ms. Trawick took her problem to Mr. Passman, the Carmike CEO.

Mr. Passman had previously been generous in his praise for Ms. Trawick’s work, lauding her in company e-mails as a “star” and “Superwoman.” Earlier that year, she testified, when she told him that she planned to talk about the glass ceiling in a speech she’d been invited to give to her community college, he had acknowledged its existence and its injustice. Yet in this latest meeting he still insisted, she recalled to jurors, that she’d need to get her bachelor’s degree before advancing because “men are going to require that of you, whether it’s with this company or any company.”

This was the first time Ms. Trawick heard that her academic record was being used to hold her back; Mr. Van Noy had known but never told her, he testified. Meanwhile, neither Mr. Van Noy, Mr. Sailors, nor Mr. Lucas had a bachelor’s degree. According to testimony, Ms. Trawick was the only internal director candidate to whom such a requirement was applied.

At a pre-trial hearing, Ms. Trawick’s attorney lumped Mr. Passman and Mr. Van Noy together as “two bad actors” and cited a pattern of good-old-boy discrimination at the higher levels of Carmike. It was Mr. Van Noy, however, who took the lead role here.

Shortly after Ms. Trawick met with the CEO, Mr. Van Noy and another executive called her into a meeting to discuss a Carmike sponsorship she had helped to secure for Quadrille, a women’s society club in which she was a leader — and they also walked her through various expense submissions, all of which had been approved by Mr. Van Noy, she testified. Carmike executives routinely requested donations for community groups with which they were involved, jurors heard, with cross-checks in place to avoid self-dealing.

Although the $2,000 Quadrille sponsorship had been approved by Mr. Sailors, Ms. Trawick found herself under official investigation and Mr. Van Noy instructed her not to “poll [her] peers” during the process, she told the court. Just a day later, on a Friday, Mr. Van Noy asked if she had talked to anyone: He’d heard a report that she did. Ms. Trawick said she had spoken with a subordinate about an aspect of the matter, she testified, and she railed against the idea that she’d misuse Carmike funds as “just insulting and not true.”

Irritated, Mr. Van Noy immediately looked to fire Ms. Trawick — notwithstanding Carmike’s policy of step-by-step discipline. After the weekend he got an OK from Mr. Passman, who professed to jurors his disappointment that his “high hopes for Crystal” had been dashed. The next day Mr. Van Noy told the 17-year Carmike veteran the price for her “insubordination” and the loss of his confidence.

At trial, Mr. Van Noy affirmed that the termination wasn’t based on any investigatory finding, but rather on Ms. Trawick’s internal discussions about the probe. He gave her “the option to resign” as a face-saving measure, Ms. Trawick testified, but she didn’t want to do that.

Ms. Trawick suffered from the abrupt firing “physically, emotionally, and mentally,” her husband testified — and gossip about it dogged her efforts to bounce back in Columbus’ tight business community. Although she quickly accepted a job as director of marketing for Childcare Network of Georgia, the woman she was replacing “told me she got a call that I had been fired from Carmike for stealing money,” she testified.

After she switched to a two-year gig as COO at a small local movie company, she heard the same rumors via a potential investor. “Everywhere I go, I think people are talking about it,” she said in court. “I don’t do as much in the community as I used to, because I don’t want to be … I feel shamed.”

By the time of the trial, Ms. Trawick said, she hadn’t had a job for some time. “I’m still broken,” she testified.

Mr. Van Noy, meanwhile, described himself to jurors as “retired.” Not long after he fired Ms. Trawick, the giant theater chain AMC announced it would acquire Carmike — and Mr. Van Noy was reportedly set to walk away with cash and stock worth almost $9 million.

» Read Ms. Trawick’s complaint in the case

» See a local newspaper’s calculation of how much Mr. Van Noy (and Mr. Passman) stood to earn from the AMC acquisition

The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in Trawick v. Carmike Cinemas, Inc. We select “Bad Boss” cases to illustrate the continuing relevance of employee protection laws for our newsletter’s audience, which includes attorneys and former TELG clients.

Ms. Trawick was represented at trial by Prebula & Associates LLC.

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