United States District Court, E.D. Arkansas, Western Division
LONNIE E. WILLIAMS, PLAINTIFF
ASBURY AUTOMOTIVE GROUP, INC.; and NP VKW LLC, d/b/a NORTH POINT MAZDA/VOLKSWAGEN, DEFENDANTS
[Copyrighted Material Omitted]
For Lonnie E Williams, Plaintiff: Melva H. Harmon, LEAD ATTORNEY, Attorney at Law, Little Rock, AR; Thomas H. McGowan, Provost & Umphrey, L.L.P., North Little Rock, AR.
For Asbury Automotive Group Inc, NP VKW LLC, (originally named as Arkansas Automotive Services LLC) doing business as North Point Mazda/Volkswagen, Defendants: Jane A. Kim, William Stuart Jackson, Wright, Lindsey & Jennings, Little Rock, AR.
J. LEON HOLMES, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
FINDINGS OF FACT AND CONCLUSIONS OF LAW
This age discrimination case was tried to the Court and is now ripe for decision. Lonnie E. Williams was employed on two different occasions as the service manager at the North Point Mazda/Volkswagen store in Sherwood, Arkansas. His second stint abruptly ended at the end of April of 2011. Williams says that he was fired because of his age. The defendants deny that Williams was fired and deny that any adverse action was taken due to Williams's age. They contend that Williams resigned after learning that the duties of the manager of the service department would be divided between him and another person.
Williams was born in June of 1947, so he was approaching sixty-four years of age when his employment at North Point Mazda/Volkswagen ended. By that time, he had been in the parts and service portion of the automotive industry for more than forty years. His career had included two stints with Volkswagen of Mid-America, and he was certified as a Volkswagen master technician. He was the service manager at North Point Mazda when it opened in 1986 until he resigned in 2001. Partly because of his connections with Volkswagen Mid-America, the North Point Mazda store acquired a Volkswagen franchise in 1996 and then became North Point Mazda/Volkswagen.
Although North Point Mazda/Volkswagen operates as a single dealership, it has separate buildings and separate showrooms for sales of Mazda vehicles, on the one hand, and Volkswagen vehicles, on the other. It has only one service building, however, for both brands. The Volkswagen " service lane," where customers bring their automobiles for service, is a part of the building that houses the Volkswagen showroom. The Mazda service lane, on the other hand, is part of the service building where all of the technicians, both those who work on Mazda vehicles and those who work on Volkswagen vehicles, work.
North Point Mazda/Volkswagen is owned and operated by a limited liability company, N.P. VKW LLC. That entity is part of the Asbury Automotive Group. The Asbury Automotive Group owns clusters of automobile dealerships in various cities across the United States. Each cluster of dealerships is referred to as a " platform." Asbury Automotive Group has several automobile dealerships in central Arkansas as part of their North Point platform.
Asbury Automotive Group, Inc., which is a defendant in this case, is a holding company; it has no employees. Asbury Automotive Group, LLC, which is not a defendant in this case, is an operating entity that oversees the various Asbury Automotive Group platforms. Asbury Automotive Group divides these platforms into regions for management purposes. During the relevant period of 2011, the regional manager
over the North Point platform was Gary Dodson, and the regional service manager was Domenick Colanero.
Wes Thomas was the general manager of North Point Mazda/Volkswagen from 2006 until April of 2011. In March of 2010, his service manager, Dewayne Bell, resigned to take the same position with a newly-opened competitor, Owens-Murphy Volkswagen in Little Rock. Thomas designated Bell as not eligible for rehire because Bell, while he was still employed at North Point Mazda/Volkswagen, recruited several of the North Point Mazda/Volkswagen employees to go with him to Owens-Murphy Volkswagen. When Bell resigned, Thomas recruited Williams to return to North Point Mazda/Volkswagen. At that time, Williams was employed as the service manager at Gossett Volkswagen-Porsche-Audi in Memphis. Williams accepted the offer and returned to North Point Mazda/Volkswagen as service manager on April 11, 2010.
On April 14, 2011, Thomas was transferred from the North Point Mazda/Volkswagen store to the North Point Toyota store, where he became general manager. Gary Dodson promoted Jon Collins, who had been the sales manager at North Point Mazda/Volkswagen, to general manager of that store on that same date.
On April 17, 2011, Collins met with Bell at the North Point Mazda/Volkswagen store and offered him an opportunity to return to employment at that store. According to both of them, Collins proposed that the duties of service manager be divided, with Bell becoming the Volkswagen service manager and Williams becoming the Mazda service manager. On April 18, 2011, Bell filled out an application for employment at North Point Mazda/Volkswagen and stated that the position that he desired was " service manager-Mazda/Volkswagen." Bell could not be employed until he passed a drug screen and a background check. Favorable results on those two requirements were received on April 25, 2011. Sometime during that time frame, Collins spoke with Thomas to clear Bell's ineligible-for-rehire designation, and Thomas agreed to the removal of that impediment to Bell being rehired.
Collins had his first conversation with Williams about Williams's employment status sometime during the week of April 25, 2011. Collins is uncertain as to the date of the conversation. Williams says it occurred on April 26, 2011. The two of them disagree as to what was said during the conversation.
According to Williams, Collins said that he (Collins) was going to have to let him (Williams) go, attributing the termination decision to Dodson. Williams says that Collins asked him to stay through the end of the month and close the month, which he agreed to do because much of his income, and the income of the service advisors whom he supervised, depended on closing the repair orders and completing the warranty documentation.
According to Collins, he told Williams that he was going to divide the service manager responsibilities into two positions, with Bell serving as the Volkswagen service manager and working at the Volkswagen service lane in the Volkswagen building, while Williams would be service manager for the Mazda brand, working at the Mazda service lane in the service building. Collins testified that the plan was for Bell to concentrate on customer relations, which was his strength, while Williams would work more directly with the technicians rather than with customers. Collins testified that the service department had been stagnant over a period of several years, and he thought having two service managers would increase the sales and profitability of the department. He also testified that the Mazda representative had requested a dedicated service manager for the Mazda brand. When presented with ...