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Myers v. United States Cellular Corp.

January 26, 2007


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Leon Jordan United States District Judge


This civil action is before the court for consideration of "Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment" [doc. 42]. Plaintiff has filed a response [doc. 66]. Defendant has submitted a reply [doc. 67], and the motion is ripe for the court's consideration and determination. The court heard oral argument on October 23, 2006.

Plaintiff has brought suit pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII"), 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et. seq., for alleged sex discrimination resulting from her termination.*fn1 Plaintiff also contends that she was discriminated against based upon her sex because she was terminated rather than being given a demotion. For the reasons stated herein, the motion will be granted, and this case will be dismissed.

I. Background

Plaintiff began working for defendant in 1994 as a Data Service Engineer. She held several positions and received positive performance evaluations, including a "FE" or "Far Exceeds" given by Employee No. 1.*fn2 for her 2002 performance. Employee No. 1, a male, gave only one other associate an "FE" rating. In May 2003, plaintiff was promoted to Supervisor 1x Data Enhanced Services by Kent Lee and his manager Employee No. 1. In July 2003, Employee No. 1 asked plaintiff to assume the position of Manager of Data Services on an interim basis while the present male manager was on leave. Plaintiff was chosen to do this over another supervisor who was a male. Employee No. 1 officially promoted plaintiff to the Manager of Data Services position in December 2003. Plaintiff then began reporting to Lee who in turn reported to Employee No. 1. Lee left defendant's employ, and plaintiff reported to Employee No. 1 until William Heilenbach became the Director of Network Operations Center in November 2004. Heilenbach reported to Mike Irizarry, the Executive Vice President of Engineering and Chief Technical Officer. In September 2004, Employee No. 1 made the decision to restructure his team including the Data Services Department.

In September 2004, Employee No. 1 met with plaintiff to address certain issues concerning her job performance. He told her she needed to confront those who were undermining her, in particular Employee No. 2, a male associate who reported directly to her. Plaintiff has admitted that she and Employee No. 2 did not get along. The record reflects that they argued and complained about each other on a regular basis, with Employee No. 1 referring to their conduct as "sniping" at each other. Nevertheless, plaintiff led Employee No. 2 to believe that he was performing satisfactorily and then told her supervisors that his performance was very inadequate. At the meeting, Employee No. 1 introduced plaintiff to Roberta Frank-Bohm, the Senior Associate Relations Manager, to help plaintiff with the areas in which she was lacking.

The same day Employee No. 1 also met with Employee No. 2 separately and jointly with plaintiff. At the joint meeting, Employee No. 1 spoke to them about team work and supporting each other. Employee No. 1 also told plaintiff that she needed to evaluate her team to determine whether each person was a good fit for the position held by that person in view of the upcoming reorganization. Both plaintiff and Employee No. 2 were also told that they were being placed on a Performance Improvement Plan ("PIP"). Plaintiff testified that after leaving the joint meeting she had no doubt that Employee No. 1 was not happy with her work performance and that there was no doubt he was also unhappy with the work performance of Employee No. 2. Plaintiff also testified that after the meetings Employee No. 1 saw she was upset and met with her privately and told her he would support her to get where she needed to be and that he wanted her to be successful.

After receiving the PIP, both plaintiff and Employee No. 2 asked Employee No. 1 for a lesser position. Employee No. 1 agreed but emphasized that they would have to work together as a team until completion of the reorganization. However, Employee No. 1 testified that their conduct towards each other did not change, and he decided to terminate both of them.

Plaintiff's PIP indicated deficiencies in her performance in the areas of "Coaching, Communication, Team Effectiveness, Business Process Improvement, and Leadership." These deficiencies were related to her issues concerning Employee No. 2. Both Employee No. 1 and plaintiff's supervisor Heilenbach testified that it was plaintiff who should have put Employee No. 2 on a PIP as he reported to her. Both also independently told her that she had the responsibility to initiate termination procedures against Employee No. 2 if she believed he was undermining her.

Also in September 2004, plaintiff attended a management meeting in Galena, Illinois at which Employee No. 1 referred to Irizarry as a "crazy" or "bad grandmother" and the "white elephant in the room." Irizarry testified that he learned about the remarks made by Employee No. 1 for the first time from plaintiff. He was in Knoxville, and plaintiff offered to give him a ride to the airport. During that ride, plaintiff indicated to Irizarry that an unfavorable comment had been made about him at the Galena meeting by Employee No. 1and she thought he should know about it. She also told him that he could talk to Tom Lovett and Rick Rockershousen about the comment as they were also present and could tell him what was said. Irizarry did speak with both Lovett and Rockershousen, though Rockershousen had already left the company.

Irizarry further testified about a conversation he had with Employee No. 1 shortly after the holidays in early 2005. Irizarry stated that he spoke to Employee No. 1 individually at a country club where they were attending a staff meeting and told Employee No. 1 that he had received feedback that Employee No. 1 had made comments about him that were not positive or constructive. Irizarry stated that Employee No. 1 appeared uncomfortable, which led him to believe that Employee No. 1 knew what he was talking about. Employee No. 1 denied in his deposition that the meeting occurred and denied that Irizarry coached him about any negative comments. In an affidavit, Employee No. 1 stated that Irizarry did not tell him about his conversation with plaintiff or about the comment. Employee No. 1 also stated in the affidavit that he did not know Irizarry spoke with Lovett about the comment in the Galena meeting and he did not have a discussion with Lovett about the comment.

Heilenbach testified that Myers complained to him about Employee No. 2 and her superiors, including Employee No. 1. Plaintiff admitted in deposition testimony that she complained about Employee No. 1 to more than one person. In December 2004 and January 2005, Heilenbach held meetings with plaintiff to address the changes she needed to make to improve the operation of her team.

In mid January 2005, Employee No. 1 told Heilenbach that he intended to terminate plaintiff and Employee No. 2 for their continued sniping at each other, and on January 31, 2005, Employee No. 1 terminated both plaintiff and Employee No. 2. At plaintiff's termination, Employee No. 1 told her that he had received feedback about her badmouthing leadership and the decision to terminate her was his alone. He also told her that "trust is a very important thing and unfortunately the trust has been broken."

II. Summary Judgment

Standard Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(c), summary judgment is appropriate when "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Canderm Pharmacal, Ltd. v. Elder Pharms., Inc., 862 F.2d 597, 601 (6th Cir. 1988) (quoting Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)). The moving party may discharge its burden by demonstrating that the non-moving party has failed to establish an essential element of that party's case for which he or she bears the ultimate burden of proof at trial. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). The moving party need not support its motion with affidavits or other materials negating the opponent's claim. Id. at 323. Although the moving party has the initial burden, that burden may be discharged by a "showing" to the district court that there is an absence of evidence in support of the non-moving party's case. Id. at 325 (emphasis in original).

After the moving party has carried its initial burden of showing that there are no genuine issues of material fact in dispute, the burden shifts to the non-moving party to present specific facts demonstrating that there is a genuine issue for trial. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986). "The 'mere possibility' of a factual dispute is not enough." Mitchell v. Toledo Hosp., 964 F.2d 577, 582 (6th Cir. 1992) (citing Gregg v. Allen-Bradley Co., 801 F.2d 859, 863 (6th Cir. 1986)). In order to defeat the motion for summary judgment, the non-moving party must present probative evidence that supports its complaint. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249-50 (1986). The non-moving party's evidence is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in that party's favor. Id. at 255. The court determines whether the evidence requires submission to a jury or whether one party must prevail as a matter of law because the issue is so one-sided. Id. at 251-52.

III. Analysis

Title VII makes it illegal for an employer to "fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin." 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1). Plaintiff's Title VII claim is based on sex discrimination. To withstand a motion for summary judgment in a Title VII case, the plaintiff must present direct evidence of discrimination or present circumstantial evidence through a prima facie case. See Mitchell, 964 F.2d at 582. There is no direct evidence of discrimination in this case; thus, plaintiff must make a prima facie showing using the well-known and established McDonnell Douglas/Burdine burden-shifting framework. To establish a prima facie case of discrimination under Title VII, plaintiff must show that: 1) she is a member of a protected class; 2) she suffered an adverse employment action; 3) she was qualified for the job; and 4) she was replaced by a person outside the protected class or treated differently from similarly situated members of the unprotected class. Hoskins v. Oakland County Sheriff's Dep't, 227 F.3d 719, 731 (6th Cir. 2000); see also Ang v. Proctor & Gamble Co., 932 F.2d 540, 548 (6th Cir. 1991).

Once plaintiff establishes a prima facie case, the burden shifts to the defendant to "articulate some legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason" for its employment action. McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 802 (1973). The defendant does not need to prove the nondiscriminatory reason but needs to "merely articulate a valid rationale." Hartsel v. Keys, 87 F.3d 795, 800 (6th Cir. 1996) (citing St. Mary's Honor Ctr. v. Hicks, 509 U.S. 502, 514 (1993)). If the defendant meets this burden of production, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to produce evidence from which a jury could find that the proffered reason is a pretext for unlawful discrimination. Tex. Dep't of Cmty. Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248, 256 (1981).

Prima Facie Case - Termination

Defendant first challenges plaintiff's prima facie case at the third prong, arguing that plaintiff was not qualified for the management job she held at the time she was fired. Defendant argues that plaintiff was not meeting her employer's legitimate performance expectations in the management position and was therefore unqualified. The plaintiff relies on the Sixth Circuit's decisions in Cline v. Catholic Diocese of Toledo, 206 F.3d 651 (6th Cir. 2000), and Cicero v. Borg-Warner Automotive, Inc., 280 F.3d 579 (6th Cir. 2002), and argues that defendant's evidence that she was unqualified is being improperly used at the prima facie stage. "When assessing whether a plaintiff has met her employer's legitimate expectations at the prima facie stage of a termination case, a court must examine plaintiff's evidence independent of the nondiscriminatory reason 'produced' by the defense as its reason for terminating plaintiff." Cline, 206 F.3d at 660-61.

In Wexler v. White's Fine Furniture, Inc., 317 F.3d 564 (6th Cir. 2003), the Sixth Circuit set out the requirements a plaintiff must meet to satisfy the qualification ...

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