She was 61 when the bank fired her. Was she too old? Or did she fail to do her job?

Barbara Barkley talks with her lawyers, Todd Barsotti, center, and Stephen Cornwell, during a break in her wrongful termination civil trial in Fresno County Superior Court. Barkley has sued Bank of the West for age discrimination, harassment and retaliation.
Barbara Barkley talks with her lawyers, Todd Barsotti, center, and Stephen Cornwell, during a break in her wrongful termination civil trial in Fresno County Superior Court. Barkley has sued Bank of the West for age discrimination, harassment and retaliation. plopez@fresnobee.com

For more than a decade, customer service manager Barbara Barkley’s desk at the Bank of the West in northwest Fresno was near the front entrance so she could greet customers, help them with their banking needs and keep an eye on her staff of tellers.

But when a new branch manager took over in 2013, he hired a younger, prettier woman with no bank teller experience to be Barkley’s assistant and to take over Barkley’s desk, her lawyers said.

Within months of the new hire, the 61-year-old Barkley was out of a job.

Barkley, now 64, is a plaintiff in a wrongful-termination civil trial in Fresno County Superior Court, where she has accused her former bosses of age discrimination, harassment and retaliation. She is seeking unspecified damages because, since her termination in January 2014, she has not been able to find a job.

The trial in Judge Jeffrey Hamilton’s courtroom is expected to take a few weeks.

In opening statements of the trial on Tuesday, lawyers Alan Levins and Ryan Eddings, who represent Bank of the West, denied the allegations, saying Barkley was fired for being unprofessional, violating bank policies and not performing her managerial duties.

Branch manager David Garcia, who sought Barkley’s termination, also never called Barkley old or utter any derogatory term toward her, Levins said.

According to Levins, the final straw came when Barkley made an off-the-cuff remark to Garcia in front of bank customers. During a hectic banking day, she said: “Maybe we ought to smoke marijuana so we can chill out.”

Levins said Garcia was shocked by the comment. “He lost all confidence in her,” Levins told the jury.

But Fresno attorneys Stephen Cornwell and Todd Barsotti, who represent Barkley, told jurors that Barkley was joking during a tense moment with Garcia.

The trial pits Barkley and a half-dozen bank tellers who left Bank of the West once Garcia took over against Garcia and his superiors who agreed to fire Barkley.

One of the former tellers – Kathy Luckin, 71– set the stage for what will be a nasty legal battle.

In her testimony this week, Luckin said she resigned soon after Barkley was fired. She also testified that Garcia made it difficult for Barkley and the tellers to do their job.

The harassment was subtle, Luckin said: Garcia would cut back on tellers’ hours, so the lines got long. Barkley would then pitch in, but fall behind on her duties.

Luckin said Garcia also would keep Barkley occupied in meetings, especially near closing time, when Barkley had mandatory duties to perform.

Court records say Barkley and Garcia share a love of banking. But Barkley is a throwback to when customer service was emphasized; the new generation emphasizes sales, in which tellers are encouraged to ask customers about getting a credit card, mortgage loans, online banking, or other services.

A native of Australia, Barkley moved to Fresno in 1971 at 19 and has more than 40 years of banking experience working for different banks, Barsotti told the jury in opening remarks of the trial.

In 1998, she was hired at Sanwa Bank in downtown Fresno as a customer service representative, which is also known as a bank teller. Three months after she was hired, she was promoted to customer service manager.

Sanwa Bank later became United California Bank. Bank of the West later purchased United California Bank and retained Barkley as its customer service manager, Barsotti said. In 2002, Barkley was transferred to the bank’s busiest branch at Shaw and West avenues. Because of positive evaluations over the years, Barkley in 2008 was given the title of assistant vice president, Barsotti told the jury.

The 38-year-old Garcia also is a go-getter. He is a graduate and class president at Exeter High School, a graduate of College of the Sequoias in Visalia, and has a bachelor’s degree from Chapman College. He got his first banking job as a teller in 1995 while in high school, and put himself through college by working in a bank, Levins said.

Over the years, he worked as a teller, loan officer and mortgage officer. He was hired as branch manager of Bank of the West in late February 2013 after working at Wells Fargo Bank in Madera.

Barsotti and court records give this account of the dispute:

Barkley was on medical leave in January 2013 when the branch manager, Deborah Facciani, left for another job with Bank of the West. In early February, Barkley returned from medical leave early so the bank would not be without a branch manager or customer service manager.

“Barbara ran the bank,” Barsotti told the jury, noting that she treated her staff like family. But once Garcia arrived, “it became evident that her job was seriously at risk,” he said. “He began a relentless attack on her.”

According to Barsotti, Garcia got upset at Barkley and the tellers if paper clips or rubber bands were out of place. He also got rid of a calendar that tellers used to inform Barkley when they had doctor appointments or noted their birthdays.

“He was a nitpicker,” Barsotti said. “He was persnickety.”

Barkley learned the nuances of being a manager from Franchetti, who allowed her to give staff time off, cash checks for longtime customers who had no money in their accounts, and waived fees for them if they overdrew their accounts, Barsotti said.

But when Garcia became branch manager, he never asked Barkley to orient him to the branch’s operating procedures. Because of his management style, many tellers, who were seasoned professionals, left. And over the next several months, Garcia began calling human resources about Barkley, claiming she was disrespectful and insubordinate.

In May 2013, Garcia hired a woman in her early 20s to be assistant customer service manager, even though she had no prior experience as a bank teller or customer service manager. Barkley wanted to train her new assistant, but Garcia refused. Instead, Garcia took it upon himself to train the woman.

Because Garcia kept the new assistant in meetings for hours, she was unable to help Barkley manage the long lines of customers or assist the tellers. “It was evident that Garcia wanted to get rid of Barbara by setting her up to fail,” Barsotti said.

Overwhelmed by the work, Barkley, who was working 60 hours, one day said she ought to quit. But she didn’t. Instead, she kept trying to work with her boss.

In June, Garcia decided to put the new assistant in a desk near the front entrance. “Garcia wanted a fresher look because Barkley looked too old,” Barsotti said, telling jurors that Barkley felt demeaned by the move. It also made her job harder, he said, because Barkley’s desk was now farther away from the customers.

To make matters worse, Barsotti said, Garcia gave Barkley new business cards that no longer had her title of assistant vice president.

Barkley was required to meet with Garcia daily for coaching sessions. But she soon figured out that her boss “actually prevented her from getting her job done, resulting in her getting written up for not getting things done,” Barsotti said.

On Nov. 7, 2013, Barkley filed a complaint to human resources about age-related discrimination Within three weeks, Barkley was told the investigation had been completed. The investigation was unfair, Barsotti told the jury, because the human resource investigator was the same person who was advising Garcia to reprimand Barkley.

Barkley was fired on Jan. 7, 2014.

Levins, however, told the jury that the bank had good reason to fire Barkley. He and court records gives this account:

Between August 2010 to January 2014, Barkley received multiple poor performance reviews and informal reprimands, from both Facciani and Garcia, despite efforts by them to teach her the correct way to manage her tellers so she could train her staff on new bank operations and policies and sales.

When Garcia began as branch manager, he tried to get to know Barkley. He even suggested that she take time management classes at the bank’s expense. “She flat out refused,” Levins told the jury.

Barkley also did not reprimand tellers who had cash imbalances, give employee their work reviews on time, or hold one-on-on meetings with tellers, as Garcia had requested. She also allowed her staff to come to work late.

In September 2013, Garcia and his superiors first talked about firing Barkley. They later elected to give Barkley time to correct her performance deficiencies. When she didn’t she received her final written reprimand on Oct. 21, 2013, for violating bank policies. The reprimand said Barkley allowed a customer to cash a check without sufficient funds in the account; gave confidential information to a person who was not authorized to have it; and gave confidential pass codes to her staff.

Levins told the jury that bank officials didn’t fire Barkley in retaliation for filing a complaint against them in November. That’s because Garcia and his superiors first talked about firing her in September. He also said Barkley was later replaced by someone nearly her age – not by her assistant who was in her 20s.

Levins acknowledged that former tellers were upset with Garcia’s management style. But he said Garcia “tried to get to know them, both young and old employees. He tried to get along with them.”

Pablo Lopez: 559-441-6434, @beecourts