Former executive sues New Peoples Bank for discrimination
Ex-VP Mary Trigiani characterizes bank's culture as evangelical Christian 'cult'
Mary Trigiani, a marketing consultant and native of Big Stone Gap, has sued Russell County-based New Peoples Bank for discrimination and wrongful termination. She was employed as senior vice president of strategic planning and development at the community bank from 2017 until 2019, when her position was eliminated.
In a suit filed Jan. 1 with the U.S. Western District Court of Virginia, Trigiani claims that the president and CEO of New Peoples Bank and other colleagues discriminated against her for her nonevangelical religious beliefs and characterized the bank’s culture as akin to a cult.
Her suit claims sex-based, religious and age-based discrimination at the bank, which was founded in 1997 and has 21 branches in Southwest Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee. It also notes that a related employment discrimination complaint that Trigiani filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in January 2020 was dismissed in October 2020.
Trigiani’s lawsuit charges that C. Todd Asbury, the bank’s president and CEO, and senior pastor of Adoration Church, an evangelical Pentecostal house of worship in Bristol, “saw himself not just as a bank president but as its spiritual leader. He encouraged a cult-like 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.”
Trigiani, the sister of best-selling author Adriana Trigiani and MercerTrigiani partner and former Virginia Bar Association president Pia Trigiani, founded a consulting practice, Spada Inc., in 1990 and has served on multiple advisory and nonprofit boards, including Kingsport, Tennessee-based FundingSage and the GO Virginia Region One Technology Working Group. She previously worked as a contracted consultant for New Peoples Bank before the senior vice president role was created for her in 2017, according to the lawsuit.
A dispute over the bank’s “Golden Rule” — based on the biblical verse of treating others the way one would want to be treated — was the beginning of a rift between Trigiani and other executives, the suit says. “She observed that a supposedly secular for-profit business was enforcing Christian evangelical doctrine in the workplace, with no room for interpretation.” After Trigiani complained, saying that the “Golden Rule” was being used against her “in response to legitimate professional decisions,” she was later warned by Asbury “that Ms. Trigiani had to ‘change the way’ she ‘talked to people.'”
The lawsuit alleges that Asbury was attempting to “force Ms. Trigiani’s assimilation into the NPB Cult and strongly suggest that she communicate in a meek and subordinate manner to male employees. Indeed, Mr. Asbury explained that despite her management-level position, Ms. Trigiani spoke with too much authority and she needed to be ‘respectful’ in her tone.”
Trigiani alleges in the suit that the bank hired employees associated with Asbury’s church, some of whom were given positions that they were not qualified for, including a woman who was hired to be her assistant.
Throughout her two-year employment, Trigiani claims that she was left out of key meetings, given “discriminatory gendered feedback” by colleagues, and that her marketing recommendations went ignored. Subordinate employees also showed Trigiani disrespect, and in 2018, Asbury “scolded” Trigiani and said “that she needed ‘to start behaving.’ Mr. Asbury further indicated that he had asked other employees to ‘watch’ Ms. Trigiani’s actions during the day and to ‘report’ back to him.”
The lawsuit also claims that CFO John Boczar dismissed Trigiani’s requests for meetings when he was hired in early 2018, and after he canceled a meeting between Trigiani and an employee on his team in November 2018 without telling Trigiani, Boczar “excoriated and berated her publicly” for calling the meeting “and then questioned Ms. Trigiani’s judgment and role. … Notably, Mr. Boczar was not disciplined or counseled due to this unprofessional behavior.”
Meanwhile, Trigiani was granted additional responsibilities in May 2018 but was not given a pay raise or title change, although a male executive with evangelical religious beliefs who had a similar change in duties did receive a raise and a new title, according to the lawsuit. When Trigiani approached Asbury with her request for a new title, compensation and increased staff headcount, or to return to her original role without a raise, “Mr. Asbury refused either option … and instead escalated the hostility and personal attacks upon her in the workplace.”
Asbury further confronted Trigiani with a third-party report that Trigiani had “overindulged in alcohol,” which was not true, she claims in the suit.
She was assigned to report to Chief Development Officer Gary Keys in early 2019, and although she was warned she was “under probation” and could be terminated at any time by Asbury, Trigiani claims that Keys told her “she should not worry about the review.”
After more months of being shunned and then being directed to work from home in June 2019, Trigiani says she was informed at a September 2019 meeting with Keys and Chief Credit Officer Bill Beard that her position would be eliminated that day, according to the suit. “At the time, Ms. Trigiani was led to believe that NPB was terminating the employment of a significant group of personnel,” the suit says, but the bank didn’t provide any information about other employees affected.
Ultimately, the suit says, her responsibilities were taken over by “younger and/or male employees that adhered to the same evangelical religious beliefs as Ms. Trigiani’s … supervisors.”
Asbury rejects the allegations in the suit, saying in a statement, “We recently received Ms. Trigiani’s lawsuit, and there is no merit whatsoever to her claims. Ms. Trigiani never complained about any discrimination or unlawful treatment at any time during her employment, because, as she knows, there was none. New Peoples Bank is an equal opportunity employer that does not tolerate discrimination against anyone on the basis of age, gender, religion, race or on any other basis. Ms. Trigiani was treated with kindness, professionalism, fairness and respect during her employment.”
The statement continues: “As Ms. Trigiani knows, we accommodated her requests and supported her at all times throughout the course of her employment, which makes her false accusations against NPB all the more painful. We look forward to defending her meritless claims and to being vindicated in court with the dismissal of these claims.”
The bank has until March 8 to respond to the suit. Trigiani is represented by Roanoke-based Strelka Employment Law, and New Peoples Bank is represented by the Richmond-based O’Hagan Meyer law firm.
“Ms. Trigiani possesses strong claims of discrimination against her former employer, New Peoples Bank,” said her attorney, Thomas E. Strelka. “The bank is aware of the lawsuit and we anticipate receiving the bank’s filed response to the lawsuit in early March of this year. We look forward to our day in court.”