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Belew v. Seco Architectural Systems, Inc.

United States District Court, E.D. Tennessee, Knoxville Division

July 5, 2017



          Thomas W. Phillips, United States District Judge

         This matter is before the Court on Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment [doc. 14], Defendant's Brief in Support of the Motion [doc. 15], Plaintiff's Response [doc. 18], Defendant's Reply [doc. 20], Plaintiff's Supplemental Response [doc. 26], and Defendant's Supplemental Reply [doc. 31]. For the reasons herein, the Court will deny the motion.

         I. Background

         Born in 1953, Robbie Dale Belew (“Mr. Belew”) began his career with Defendant SECO Architectural Systems, Inc. (“SECO”)-a company that fabricates and installs wall panels primarily for large-scale construction projections-in 1991 as a sheeter, or an installer of metal siding. [Belew Dep., doc. 15-1, 50:25; 51:1-11; Creighton Decl., doc. 15-2, ¶¶ 2, 13]. Mr. Belew later became a construction manager with SECO and was responsible for the oversight of projects in states throughout the Southeast. [Belew Dep. at 61:15-25; 62:1-5; Creighton Decl. ¶ 6]. By 2014, SECO employed three construction managers, each of whom was based in a different state. [Creighton Dec. ¶ 6]. As one of those three construction managers, Mr. Belew was based in Jacksboro, Tennessee, where he maintained an office. [Belew Dep. at 101:24-25, 102:1; Creighton Decl. ¶ 6]. At some time in 2014, SECO published a company-wide newsletter called “The SECO Outlook, ” [doc. 18-1], in which Joseph Creighton (“Mr. Creighton”), SECO's president and co-owner, [Creighton Decl. ¶ 1], wrote:

It has been said that the future belongs to the young. It has also been said that those that don't plan for the future, won't have much of a future!
In the ever-changing business world, which moves faster with every passing day, those companies that don't plan and prepare for the near-term future or the long term future, simply won't have a future!
Of course, one of the pillars of SECO's core philosophy has been to always self-perform our field operations. As such, since day-one, back in 1989, SECO's field forces have been direct SECO employees. In fact, several of the foremen who started out with SECO leading our field efforts are still leading our field efforts nearly 25 years later!
This amazing longevity is the primary reason that SECO's field personnel are the most experienced professionals in the industry.
If there is any downside to all of this experience, it's that some of our long timers are, shall we say, not “spring chickens”! Looking forward, SECO management has recognized the need to take advantage of our seasoned personnel as teachers and mentors of the next generation of foreman and crew leaders. This is an ongoing process, of course, but several of our next-generation field leaders have already come to the forefront.
These “young guns”, the future of SECO's field leadership, have taken full advantage of the vast knowledge and skills possessed by our experienced leaders and have thereby accelerated their learning process.
We'd like to introduce you to some of our future stars and their primary mentors.
. . . .
We are very fortunate to have all of these dedicated young professionals on our team.
With this kind of talent within our field leadership supplemented by dozens of top-notch technicians and craftsmen, it looks as if SECO's customers of the future will continue to have their needs met by the best field force in America, just like our customers of today!
A big thank you goes out to our senior guys for helping to secure a bright future for SECO by selflessly passing on their invaluable knowledge to the next generation!

         [The SECO Outlook at 15-16; Creighton Dep., doc. 26-1, 66:10-25; 67:1-23].

         In December 2014, Mr. Creighton maintains that he and SECO's founder and co-owner, Dick Waldron, “began discussing ways to streamline company operations and cut costs” and decided that SECO did not require three construction managers. [Creighton Decl. ¶¶ 3, 7-9]. As a result, they demoted Mr. Belew, who was about sixty years old at the time, to a position that required him to perform safety audits and order equipment for construction projects, [Belew Dep. at 75:14-25; 76:1-23]; terminated one of the other construction managers, who was forty-five years old, [Creighton Decl. ¶ 10]; and promoted the third construction manager, Troy Strickland (“Mr. Strickland”), [1] who assumed responsibilities for all of SECO's construction projects, [id. ¶ 9]. Mr. Belew, in his new position, “no longer had any management authority, ” [id. ΒΆ 10], and he not only had fewer ...

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