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Walker v. Trane U.S., Inc.

United States District Court, M.D. Tennessee, Nashville Division

April 11, 2017

BEATE E. WALKER, Plaintiff,
v.
TRANE U.S., INC., Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM

          ALETA A. TRAUGER, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Beate Walker filed her Verified Complaint (Doc. No. 1) in December 2015, asserting a claim of discrimination on the basis of gender in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e. Now before the court is the defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment. (Doc. No. 13.) The motion has been fully briefed and is ripe for review. For the reasons set forth herein, the court will grant the motion and dismiss this case with prejudice.

         I. MATERIAL FACTS[1]

         Defendant Trane U.S., Inc. (“Trane”) is engaged in the manufacture of industrial heating, cooling, and ventilation systems. It operates a manufacturing plant in Clarksville, Tennessee, employing approximately 1200 people. Walker was employed by Trane as a production leader from 1998 until her discharge on February 5, 2014. A production leader supervises 25 to 50 hourly production-line employees and is responsible for safety, quality, delivery, employee morale, and employee engagement.

         In 2012, Trane conducted a series of “roundtable” meetings in which hourly employees provided the human resources department with feedback about their work environments. During the roundtable meetings, employees complained about several of their production leaders. According to Erin O'Connor-Dziedzic (“O'Connor”), who was at that time Trane's human resources manager, the purpose of these meetings was “to determine what was causing the morale issues amongst hourly employees” in the particular production area where Walker was assigned to work. (O'Connor Decl. ¶ 3, Doc. No. 17.)

         O'Connor attended these meetings; line-management did not. (Id. ¶ 3.) O'Connor avers that the complaints about Walker, of all the production leaders, “were, by far, the most pronounced.” (Id. ¶ 4.) “Specifically, ” she said, “I heard time and again that Ms. Walker frequently employed a bullying, belittling, and generally abusive communication style when interacting with her hourly subordinates.” (Id.)[2]

         After the roundtable meetings, O'Connor met with plant management to discuss options for addressing the morale issues. At one of these meetings, Trane management discussed discharging Walker. (O'Connor Decl. ¶¶ 5-6; York Dep. 76, Doc. No. 16-8.) Instead of discharging her at that time, however, the company agreed that production manager Jason York would provide Walker with a “fresh start” by permitting her to transfer to the area of the plant that he managed-the “Voyager 3” production line. Up until that time, Walker had worked in the “Voyager 2” production area under production manager Kevin Frilling.

         Around June 27, 2012, Frilling and O'Connor together drafted a memorandum to Walker (the “June 2012 Memo”), ostensibly from Frilling, regarding her reassignment. (O'Connor Decl. ¶ 7; Doc. No. 16-3.) This Memo states:

As you know, the Company has been conducting a series of roundtable meetings with employees on the Voyager 2 production line to gain a better understanding of issues driving high turnover.
Feedback from the employee population identifies your behavior in the workplace as significantly contributing to a poor work environment. You have been coached in the past about needing to control your temper and behave in a professional manner.
You are being moved to a new department in the hopes that this new environment will enable you to address any leadership deficiencies and learn to respond to employee issues and production issues in an acceptable, supportive and productive manner. Beate, it is imperative that you understand that further unacceptable or inappropriate behavior on your part will result in termination of your employment.
The Company offers a variety of resources that you may find helpful as you work to make required improvements. I encourage you to reach out to the Employee Assistance Program for personal support, and I also encourage you to identify courses, either through our Learning Management System, or through community or professional agencies for training. Our leadership team is prepared to assist and support your [sic] with this training; however, you must understand that responsibility to correct these issues is yours.
I am hopeful that you can make and sustain the required improvements to allow you to become a successful member of the Trane team. Please let me know what assistance you require.
Effective July 1, 2012, you will be reporting to Jason York. Jason is aware of the reasons for this decision and is also available to provide guidance, training and support.

(Doc. No. 16-3 (emphasis added).) A handwritten notation indicates that O'Connor met with Walker on July 10, 2012 to discuss the June 2012 Memo, which Walker refused to sign. O'Connor also wrote across the bottom of the Memo: “Complaints from employees - numerous employees - about disrespectful behavior. Discussed incident with Rose Worthington recently when Beate cursed at her. She is losing trust from mgmt & employees.” (Id.) Walker testified that she received the memorandum, which she characterized as a “writeup”: “According to the company, I was written up for - they had a roundtable meeting. There was a meeting with the hourly employees. And they say I was verbally abusing [hourly employees].” (Walker Dep. 29- 30, Doc. No. 16-2.)

         Walker does not accuse Frilling of discriminating against her on the basis of gender. Rather, despite the clarity of the June 2012 Memo, Walker insists that Frilling never counseled her on how she treated other employees or indicated that there was a problem with her management, and he “was as surprised as [she] was that [she] was given a Reassignment of Work Location.” (Walker Aff. ¶ 3, Doc. No. 20-3.) Although she does not deny receiving the June 2012 Memo or speaking with O'Connor about it, she claims she was “never given details about what she was doing wrong or who [she] was supposed to be abusing.” (Id. ¶ 5.) She complains that she was never allowed to refute the allegations against her or show O'Connor the evidence that she had less employee turnover than the other production leaders on her line. (Id. ¶¶ 8-9.)

         In July 2012, Walker began working in the Voyager 3 production area, where she was supervised by Jason York. According to O'Connor, “[w]ithin several months of Ms. Walker's transfer to Voyager 3, hourly employees began coming to [O'Connor's] office and complaining about Ms. Walker's abusive management style.” (O'Connor Decl. ¶ 9.)

         In March 2013, York completed the 2012 Year End Performance and Leadership Competency Review for Walker. (Doc. No. 16-6.) He noted that “the company cannot ignore Beate's problems early in the year. Specifically, verbal abuse to hourly employees.” (Doc. No. 16-6, at 5.) That comment pertained to the behavior that prompted Walker's move to the Voyager 3 production area and that predated York's supervision of Walker. York's evaluation of Walker's performance during the six months of 2012 when Walker was actually under York's supervision was essentially positive, except in the areas of “Builds Talent and Capability” and “Coaches for Performance, ” where she was rated as having “Low Proficiency” and “No to Very Low Proficiency.” (Doc. No. 16-6, at 6.)

         In September 2013, Trane conducted a company-wide employee engagement survey. (Doc. No. 6-7.) Walker denies receiving a copy of the survey; she maintains instead that she was shown only her “percentage rating” in the survey and not the responses of the hourly employees who reported to her. (Pl.'s Decl. ¶ 10, Doc. No. 20-3.) According to O'Connor, “[t]he employee engagement scores for areas Ms. Walker supervised were disproportionately negative.” (O'Connor Decl. ¶ 10.) Walker objects that the defendant has not provided documentation of other production leaders' results. (Pl.'s Resp. to Def.'s Statement of Undisp. Facts ¶ 20, Doc. No. 20-1.)[3]

         Shortly after the results of the engagement survey were released, Jason York conducted a survey of the Voyager 3 hourly employees called “Start, Stop, Continue.” The employees filled out forms for each supervisor that simply asked them to list activities their supervisor should “start” doing, “stop” doing, ” and “continue” doing. The form also provided space at the bottom for “Additional Comments.” (See Doc. No. 16-9.) According to York and O'Connor, the employees' feedback about Walker was substantially worse than it was for the other supervisors in the Voyager 3 production area. (See York Dep. 106, Doc. No. 16-8 (“Ms. Walker's ‘start, stop and continue' negative comments compared to the other supervisors and production leaders, it was astronomically more negative with negative comments.”); O'Connor Decl. ¶ 12 (“I reviewed the ‘Start, Stop, Continue' feedback relating to each of the leaders in Voyager-3. Ms. Walker's feedback was by far the most negative.”).)

         Forty “Stop, Start, Continue” forms filled out by Walker's supervisees are in the record. (Doc. No. 16-9.) Of these, approximately half provide negative or very negative comments. For example, many of the comments suggest that Walker “start” being fair and respecting people and “stop” playing favorites and “downing” people. (See, e.g., Doc. No. 16-9, at 1, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 10, 11, 13, 14, 15, 18, 22, 27.) Approximately a quarter of the surveys are neutral or provide both positive and negative comments[4]; another quarter are very positive.[5]

         York and O'Connor met in January 2014 to discuss the results of the Start, Stop, Continue survey. (York Dep. 45, 93, Doc. No. 16-8; O'Connor Decl. ¶ 13.) In the same meeting, they discussed Walker's low employee engagement scores on the employee engagement survey and the fact that O'Connor was continuing to hear complaints directly from hourly employees about Walker's “abusive management style.” (O'Connor Decl. ¶ 13.)

         The evidence regarding who exactly made the decision to terminate Walker is somewhat conflicting. O'Connor testified that she and York together determined that Walker had not improved her management style since receiving the June 2012 Memo and that it would be necessary to terminate her employment. (O'Connor Decl. ¶ 14.) York testified that the decision was “a collaboration between human resources [i.e., O'Connor], [him]self, and the plant manager. And it was a unanimous consensus.” (York Dep. 45, Doc. No. 16-8.) He clarified that he and O'Connor presented the matter to the plant manager. (Id.) The ...


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