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Leach v. Electric Research and Manufacturing Cooperative, Inc.

United States District Court, W.D. Tennessee, Eastern Division

November 22, 2016

PEGGY LEACH, Plaintiff,
v.
ELECTRIC RESEARCH AND MANUFACTURING COOPERATIVE, INC., d/b/a ERMCO, Defendant.

          ORDER DENYING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          J. DANIEL BREEN CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff, Peggy Leach, brought this action against Defendant, Electric Research and Manufacturing Cooperative, Inc., d/b/a ERMCO (“ERMCO”), alleging wage discrimination on the basis of gender in violation of the Equal Pay Act (“EPA”), 29 U.S.C. § 206(d), and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. 2000e-2 (“Title VII”).[1] (Docket Entry (“D.E.”) 1.) Before the Court is ERMCO's motion for summary judgment pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. (D.E. 12.) Plaintiff has filed a response, (D.E. 15), to which Defendant filed a reply, (D.E. 16), making the motion ripe for disposition.

         I. FACTS

         ERMCO produces electrical transformers and transformer components, (D.E. 15-1 at PageID 60), and employs approximately 1, 000 employees at its production facilities in Dyersburg, Tennessee (D.E. 12-3 at PageID 48). ERMCO has two plants in Dyersburg: the “Single Phase” plant manufactures transformers for residential use while the “Three Phase” plant produces transformers for commercial use. (D.E. 12-3 at PageID 48.) Plaintiff began working for ERMCO in Dyersburg in 1993, and her job supports both Single Phase and Three Phase manufacturing. (D.E. 15-3 at PageID 86, 88, 101 & 103.) Prior to working at ERMCO, Leach worked at Tokheim Industries (“Tokheim”) and Bekaert Steel Wire Corporation (“Bekaert”) for a total of twelve years. (Id. at PageID 86.) Both these companies “produced goods in similar manufacturing environments and processes as at ERMCO.” (Id. at PageID 87; D.E. 16-2 at PageID 140.) Leach's résumé reflects that she gained experience in purchasing, inventory control, usage tracking, and forecasting at Tokheim and Bekaert. (D.E. 15-3 at PageID 97-98; see also Id. at PageID 87.) In addition to her work for these former employers, by 2003, Plaintiff had ten years of purchasing experience at ERMCO. (Id. at PageID 86; D.E. 16-2 at PageID 140.) At that time, her annual salary was $37, 000. (D.E. 15-1 at PageID 63.)

         In support of her claims, Leach offers a male employee, Mike McLaughlin, as a comparator. In 2014, Plaintiff discovered that McLaughlin was earning more money than her. (D.E. 15-3 at PageID 94.) ERMCO hired the comparator in 2003 at an annual salary of $41, 000. (D.E. 12-2 at PageID 49; D.E. 15-1 at PageID 62.) According to Leach, McLaughlin was employed to take over her former duties, and she “was assigned to train him on purchasing and forecasting.” (D.E. 15-3 at PageID 89.) Plaintiff avers that she and McLaughlin were coworkers in the same purchasing division from 2003 to 2013. (Id. at PageID 93.) According to Leach, she and the comparator shared the following job responsibilities: purchasing items for the manufacture of transformers, purchasing commodities, forecasting cost and usage of items purchased to ensure sufficient quantities were stocked, tracking inventory, and maintaining contact with suppliers. (Id.) Despite this, McLaughlin “was immediately paid more than [her] for performing exactly the same job that [she] . . . performed.” (Id. at PageID 90.) Further, she alleges that at the time he was hired, she “was taking on additional ‘high dollar commodities . . . .'” (Id.)

         McLaughlin stated in an affidavit that he was currently the Purchasing Manager at ERMCO and that he supervised Plaintiff. (D.E. 16-1 at PageID 138.) Prior to working for Defendant, he gained experience as a Purchasing Manager and Inventory Control Manager at other companies. (Id.) McLaughlin maintained that Leach did not train him when he was hired in 2003 but “merely assisted [him] with orientation regarding ERMCO's business systems.” (Id.) He further stated that Plaintiff “had no knowledge or understanding . . . of formulas or calculations related to the purchasing and forecasting of commodities pricing and the cost-effective timing of purchasing commodities.” (Id.) The comparator admitted that Plaintiff “input numbers in spreadsheets and created logs” related to cost forecasting, but he opined that these duties “require[d] little skill.” (Id.) McLaughlin averred that after he began working at ERMCO, he determined that Plaintiff's “job performance related to commodity purchasing and forecasting was helter skelter and made no sense.” (Id.) He said that, “respectfully, ” Leach did “not have the ability” to perform commodity purchasing and forecasting. (Id.) Contrary to some of his other statements, the comparator admitted that he and Plaintiff “performed similar jobs from 2003 until 2013, ” although he insisted they were not done “in the same way.” (Id.)

         In an affidavit, Jerry Ray, ERMCO's Vice-President of Human Resources, asserted that McLaughlin was earning $40, 000 at his previous job and that it was necessary to pay him $41, 000 “[i]n order to hire such a highly experienced and educated employee.” (D.E. 12-3 at PageID 47-49.) Ray said that, unlike Leach who only had an associate's degree, McLaughlin held a bachelor's degree. (Id. at PageID 48.) Further, Ray stated that the comparator “had twenty years of prior management and supervisory experience” as well as “industry-related experience[] and purchasing experience” in his two prior jobs. (Id.) In contrast, he claimed that she had no such experience. (Id.) According to Ray, McLaughlin's job responsibilities included preparing monthly updates and quarterly cost forecasts for carbon steel and oil, “two key commodities utilized by ERMCO . . . .” (Id. at PageID 49.) He stated that these cost forecasts were “heavily relied upon by [Defendant's] executive management team” and that Plaintiff did not perform any cost forecasting “or any other tasks that are comparable in importance.” (Id.) Ray added that the comparator had developed “new and improved forecasting methods” during his time at ERMCO. (Id.)

         According to Ray, Leach received negative performance evaluations and had “weak communication skills, especially verbally.” (D.E. 12-3 at PageID 49.) He said that both employees and outside suppliers had criticized Plaintiff's communication skills. (Id.) In contrast, Ray stated that the comparator had “excellent communication skills” and had not received any negative evaluations. (Id.) He characterized Leach as “generally weak on technical issues” and said she “occasionally bec[ame] confused with how commodities function[ed] in the manufacturing process.” (Id. at PageID 49-50.) Ray admitted that “Leach used to purchase commodities” but said that responsibility was taken away from her and given to McLaughlin in 2003 “because she was doing so poorly.” (Id. at PageID 50.)

         Plaintiff disputes many of these facts. She maintains that the comparator's previous employment did not involve transformer manufacturing and thus was not industry related. (D.E. 15-3 at PageID 87.) According to her, McLaughlin did not begin supervising other employees until “as late as 2013 or 2014.” (Id. at PageID 90.) She contends that performance evaluations support this fact because supervisors sign those evaluations and McLaughlin did not begin signing hers until 2014. (Id. at PageID 94.) Plaintiff admits that there is an educational difference between her and the comparator, but she claims that is irrelevant because only an associate's degree was required for the position they held. (D.E. 15-1 at PageID 61.) To support this, she points to ERMCO's job description for the “Buyer/Planner/Expediter” position, which indicates that only a two-year degree was necessary. (D.E. 15-3 at PageID 108.)

         Leach further takes issue with Ray's characterizations of her job performance, noting that her annual performance evaluations contradict many of the contentions in his affidavit. (D.E. 15-3 at PageID 88.) Records produced by ERMCO show that in both 2002 and 2003, her performance was assessed in the 5th Quintile/Outstanding. (Id. at PageID 101.) Her supervisor commented that she had done “an excellent job” and that her “attitude [was] ‘whatever it takes to get the job done.'” (Id. at PageID 103.) In 2004, Plaintiff was evaluated in the 4th Quintile/Commendable. (Id. at PageID 105.) In that year, her supervisor noted that she had “accepted a significant amount of additional responsibility, ” was “responsible for a large group of high dollar commodities, ” and had “learned her new duties while simultaneously training a new employee who was assigned [to] her former duties.” (Id. at PageID 106.) Leach notes that McLaughlin was the new employee referenced in this evaluation. (Id. at PageID 89.) Her 2005 evaluation included comments that “[h]er attitude and work ethic [were] unsurpassed, ” that her “knowledge base ha[d] increased dramatically since becoming involved in component buying, ” and that she was “an extremely valuable asset to ERMCO.” (Id. at PageID 113.) There was also a note that her supervisor would “work with [her] to develop a more effective communication vehicle . . . [and] to eliminate components shortages . . . .” (Id.) Between 2007 and 2014, Plaintiff's assessments fluctuated between the 4th Quintile/Commendable and the 3rd Quintile/Competent. (Id. at PageID 115-132.) Her 2007 evaluation noted that Leach “was involved in training both Doug Powell and Mike McLaughlin as she transitioned responsibility for some of her current components to them.” (Id. at PageID 117.) Additionally, Plaintiff's supervisor stated that she had “been instrumental in the introduction of several new component parts and new supplier development” and had “worked tirelessly to support [ERMCO] and [its] customers th[at] year.” (Id.) She was observed to “maintain[] an even temperament in the face of very demanding circumstances.” (Id.)

         Plaintiff's 2009 evaluation reflected that her “communication [was] sometimes confusing and [led] to frustration, ” (D.E. 15-3 at PageID 122), but in 2010 her supervisor stated that she had “made significant progress” in that area and “her efforts to improve [we]re apparent” (Id. at PageID 124). Her communication continued to improve from this point forward, with subsequent assessments stating that negative feedback from her peers had been reduced and “positive comments [were] noted.” (Id. at PageID 126; see also Id. at PageID 128, 129 & 131.) Leach's most recent evaluations, from 2012 to 2014, reflect that she was “very knowledgeable about the business system and her duties, ” (id. at PageID 129); that she was “performing her duties very well” and assisted in training new employees, (id.); and that she had “[g]eneral knowledge of all parts” and had been “instrumental in training the other buyers, ” (id. at PageID 131).

         Leach avers that no one at ERMCO ever told her that she lacked technical knowledge or struggled to comprehend “the way commodities function in the manufacturing process.” (D.E. 15-3 at PageID 93.) She maintains that “[a]s late as 2007, ” the comparator “was being paid more than [her] to do a job [she] was training him to do.” (Id.)

         Based on these facts, Plaintiff contends that she was discriminated against on the basis of sex. She seeks ...


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