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Tinsley v. Caterpillar Financial Services Corp.

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

June 18, 2019

CINDY R. TINSLEY, Plaintiff,
v.
CATERPILLAR FINANCIAL SERVICES CORPORATION, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM & ORDER

          Aleta A. Trauger United States District Judge.

         Pending before the court is a Motion for Summary Judgment filed by the defendant, Caterpillar Financial Services Corporation (“CFS”) (Docket No. 23). The motion was previously granted by the court (Docket No. 34). The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed this court's grant of summary judgment to the defendant on the plaintiff's Americans with Disabilities Act failure to accommodate and forced retirement claims, but remanded the case for further consideration of her Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) retaliation claim. (Docket No. 40.) The court ordered supplemental briefing, which has now been filed. (Docket Nos. 43, 46, 47.) For the reasons discussed herein, the motion will be denied and the FMLA retaliation claim shall proceed to trial.

         BACKGROUND[1]

         Cindy Tinsley is a former employee of CFS. She started at the company as a paralegal in 1997 and eventually moved to the company's business side. By October 2013, she had worked her way up to the position of Business System Analyst III. In that role, Tinsley worked on the Four Pillars Project (the “Project”) with a team of seven other business analysts. The Project involved developing, testing, and deploying new software platforms for CFS's various business functions. Each team member had background experience and specialization in different functional areas. Tinsley's specialization was in Special Accounts, dealing mainly with collections. The team operated under the supervision of a Global Process Track Manager, Paul Kaikaris, and a Team Lead, Amy Clendenon. Kaikaris provided overall leadership, while Clendenon was responsible for direct guidance and supervision of the team.

         The team spent the project's first seven months familiarizing themselves with the new software systems' capabilities. They then reviewed those capabilities with the software's eventual users, in order to identify gaps between the capabilities and the users' needs. The business analysts would draft a Functional Design Document (“FDD”) that documented the required changes. Initially, business analysts worked primarily to develop software solutions for gaps within their realm of specialization. In April 2015, the team began to test the solutions in a major test, Systems Validation Event 1 (“SVE1”). Due to the high volume of testing and the potential for long periods of idle waiting time, Kaikaris and Clendenon shifted tacks by implementing “cross-testing.” They had each business analyst train the rest of the team on his or her area of specialization, allowing each business analyst to run any test scheduled on a given day.

         Tinsley disagreed with this decision, believing that team members should only conduct tests within their realm of specialization. Cross-testing was not the only source of stress for Tinsley. Another business analyst on the team, John Wallace, had left the team some months prior, and his job duties and responsibilities were transferred to Tinsley. In addition, Tinsley was handling increased responsibilities at home related to after-school care for her grandchildren. On April 15, 2015, Tinsley emailed Kaikaris to outline her concerns. She noted that her change in family obligations restricted her ability to work more than 50 hours per week and stated that her responsibilities at work-particularly those beyond her specialization-were negatively impacting her work, sleep, and health. She requested that she be transferred off of the Project and placed back in a collections-related role.

         Kaikaris met with Tinsley upon receiving the email and agreed to lighten her workload and otherwise support her as needed. On April 21, 2015, Tinsley submitted a doctor's note from her personal physician, excusing her from work for a confidential medical condition. (Docket No. 26-1, Ex. 5.) She took four days of leave pursuant to the FMLA and returned the following Monday, April 27, 2015. On May 4, 2015, Tinsley met with Kaikaris and Clendenon, who reassigned three FDDs from Tinsley's workload in an effort to ease her workload burden. In a later email to Human Resources Generalist Chinh Brown, Tinsley stated that this “greatly reduced” her stress level. (Doc. No. 26-1, Ex. 10.)

         Tinsley proceeded with the rest of the team into the SVE1 testing event. On May 28, 2015, Kaikaris awarded Tinsley a “Cat Buck, ” a small incentive used by CFS to praise employees performing exemplary work or exceeding expectations. (Docket No. 46-1 at 2 (Supplemental Affidavit of Cindy Tinsley).) CFS employees receive a small number of Cat Bucks every quarter to give to other employees they perceive as doing their job well.[2] (Id.) Cat Bucks can be redeemed in the CFS cafeteria and on-site store. (Id.) Each Cat Buck includes a checklist of five “Customer Experience Guiding Principles, ” and the employee awarding the Cat Buck checks the principle she believes the recipient's work exemplifies. (Id., Ex. B.) On the Cat Buck he awarded Tinsley, Kaikaris checked “Follow through builds trust” and added the annotation “ALM, ” a reference to the software on which Tinsley was working at the time. (Id.) Kaikaris told Tinsley when he awarded her the Cat Buck that she was one of the only testers following the prescribed methodology. (Id. at 4.)

         In an attempt to ameliorate the stressful conditions surrounding SVE1, Kaikaris distributed stress balls to the business analysts. Some business analysts and other employees-and, on at least one occasion, Kaikaris himself-took to bouncing the balls on the floor and other surfaces, a source of great distraction to Tinsley. Tinsley was similarly frustrated by various other downtime behaviors on the part of her co-workers, which included physical activities such as headstand pushups and arm-wrestling. On July 2, 2015, at a daily team meeting, Kaikaris opened the floor to team members, and Tinsley voiced her concerns. She described the work environment as a “kindergarten” and explained that such behavior prevented her from concentrating and completing her work. (Doc. No. 26-1, Ex. 9.) Kaikaris addressed the issue, and team members subsequently stopped bouncing the balls around Tinsley.

         The following week, Kaikaris and Clendenon met with Tinsley to discuss her performance during SVE1. Kaikaris and Clendenon raised several issues related to Tinsley's purported failure to abide by the prescribed testing methodology and protocol. As to methodology, Kaikaris stated in his deposition that he and Clendenon showed Tinsley accounting tests that showed that Tinsley's testing was deficient.

Q. And what was the problem with the progress of Ms. Tinsley's test events?
A. Cindy was getting through a very large number of tests in a short period of time. And there's a check and balance that we have with our finance analysts that check the accounting after the business tests. Based on her velocity, there were- there were-excuse me. It was evident that there were deficiencies within her testing.
Q. How was it evident?
A. The accounting tests that followed her business tests showed that.
Q. How did those tests show that?
A. Through the accounting check of those tests. In other words, errors-errors on the accounting side were evident due to the balance, the credit-debit balance, the post-accounting check that the tests ran through.
Q. Did you show Ms. Tinsley those accounting tests when you discussed with her in meeting with Ms. Clendenon?
A. Yes.
Q. How many test events were improperly done, according to the accounting tests at that time?
A. I do not recall the number of tests.
Q. How many accounting test checks did you show Ms. Tinsley during that meeting?
A. I don't recall.
Q. Less than five?
A. I don't recall.

(Docket No. 26-2 at 38.) Tinsley denies that she was shown any accounting tests.[3] Kaikaris and Clendenon also expressed concern that Tinsley had left work early without permission on two occasions. Tinsley denied both charges, insisting that she was performing adequately and complying with team attendance requirements.[4]

         Later that month, Kaikaris and Clendenon again met with Tinsley to deliver her mid-year performance review. It was uncommon-but not unprecedented-for multiple supervisors to deliver a review. Kaikaris and Clendenon asked why Tinsley was taking longer than other analysts to perform her tests, which confused Tinsley, given that, in the prior meeting, Kaikaris had noted that she was performing tests too quickly. (Docket No. 46-1 at 3.) Kaikaris explained that he did not understand why Tinsley, unlike other analysts on the team, needed to arrive at 6:30 am to prepare for 8:00 am tests. (Docket No. 26-1 at 239.) Tinsley responded that she used that time to answer e-mails, work on FDDs, or complete other tasks, not to prepare for tests. (Id.)

         Kaikaris and Clendenon informed Tinsley that she would receive a “Did Not Meet Performance Expectations” rating, based on the concerns they had communicated in the previous meeting. Specifically, they detailed that Tinsley was not following the established testing process and methodology, putting test quality at risk. In the official performance review document, Kaikaris wrote:

Cindy has made great contributions to the 4 Pillars project during the first 18 months of her assignment, however the testing aspect of her role, coupled with the high demand for multi-tasking project deliverables, has resulted in an uncomfortable job fit. During the first half of 2015, her performance related to preparing for and executing the Solution Validation testing event (SV1) for North America did not meet performance expectations. She did not follow the established testing process/methodology, putting test quality at risk. Prior to beginning the event, accommodations were made for Cindy as she was experiencing elevated stress levels. A portion of her tasks were distributed to other analysts including [FDD] writing and follow-up. This mid-year rating is an anomaly and should not detract from her past accomplishments and future opportunities. With an action plan in place, I'm confident that Cindy can return to an expected level of performance by year-end.

(Docket No. 26-2, Ex. 2.)[5]

         On August 14, 2015, Kaikaris again met with Tinsley and provided her with a Performance Improvement Plan (“PIP”), as stipulated by company policy when an employee receives a “Did Not Meet Performance Expectations” review rating. The PIP outlined the disputed deficiencies Kaikaris and Clendenon identified in their previous meeting and prescribed a process for monitoring Tinsley's performance for the remainder of the year. It stated that Tinsley needed to follow proper protocol related to testing and improve certain “value-based competencies” drawn from a performance-based rubric:

Follow the established AQA (Application Quality Assurance) Process
Needs Improvement:
Need to follow the established AQA (Application Quality Assurance) process for testing and refrain from autonomous and/or impulsive actions while testing. Specifically, gain approval from Team-Lead prior to 1) instructing Tech to change code, configurations, or formulas; 2) opening/closing a defect; 3) obtaining an alternative contract to test. ...

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