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Valley Mould & Iron v. Human Rights Com.

OPINION FILED APRIL 19, 1985.

VALLEY MOULD & IRON COMPANY, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,

v.

THE ILLINOIS HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION ET AL., DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES.



Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County; the Hon. James C. Murray, Judge, presiding.

JUSTICE LORENZ DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:

This is an appeal from an order of the trial court affirming a decision of the Human Rights Commission (Commission) that plaintiff violated section 3(a) of the Fair Employment Practices Act (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1979, ch. 48, par. 853(a)) *fn1 in that it discriminated against defendant Columbus Pitts (Pitts) on the basis of his race (black), with respect to his discharge from plaintiff's employment. On appeal, plaintiff contends (1) that the Commission erred in concluding as a matter of law that plaintiff did not articulate a legitimate reason for Pitts' termination from employment; and (2) that plaintiff is entitled to judgment in its favor because it articulated a legitimate unrebutted reason for Pitts' discharge.

On December 10, 1978, Pitts began his employment with plaintiff as a chipper in its stool department. Pursuant to a collective bargaining agreement, Pitts bid on the job of coremaker, and was awarded this position on December 21, 1978. As a coremaker, Pitts was responsible for the operation of a machine known a the no-bake blender (blender) for one eight-hour shift per day. This blender mixes sand with resin and acid to produce a substance which is discharged into coreboxes to form concrete-like sandcores. These cores are used to make indentations or lifting devices on the large cast-iron ingot moulds manufactured by plaintiff.

Pitts was terminated on January 16, 1979, for allegedly breaking the blender. At the time of his discharge, Pitts was a probationary employee. In his charge before the Illinois Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC), Pitts alleged that he was discharged because of his race and not because of his work performance. The FEPC issued a complaint against plaintiff, and at a hearing thereon before an administrative law judge (ALJ), the following testimony was heard.

Anthony Sanetta, plaintiff's plant superintendent, was called by Pitts as an adverse witness. He testified that plaintiff operates three eight-hour shifts daily. Every morning, Sanetta receives reports from all general foremen. During the period between December 10, 1978, and January 15, 1979, Sanetta spoke with Pitts regarding his alleged damaging of wooden coreboxes. Sanetta was told by Tim Storey, plaintiff's equipment manager, that Pitts was damaging the coreboxes by using a sledgehammer to open them.

Edward Kutnick, plaintiff's personnel manager, was also called as an adverse witness. On January 15, 1979, he received an order from Superintendent Sanetta to terminate Pitts for burning out the blender's motor. This was the only reason given to him. At the administrative hearing, he produced the personnel records of four men — Gonzalez, Ratliff, Escobedo and Garcia. He testified that all four of these men worked on the blender during the period between its initial installation in 1977 and December 18, 1978. None of these men were ever fired for burning out the blender's motor. He believed that others had been terminated for burning out the motor, but he could not recall any names. Kutnick stated that he assumed that any and all performance reprimands were given to Pitts in writing per union provisions. Kutnick admitted that plaintiff did no aptitude testing outside of its maintenance department, and that all other jobs are based upon bid agreements. The method used to replace a terminated employee is also based on these agreements. Those who work in the department where the job is open are given the first opportunity to bid on the job. If no one in that department bids on the job, then it opens for plant-wide bidding. Notice of the job opening is posted on a bulletin board. Following Pitts' termination, only Mr. Rudin, a white, bid on the opening caused by Pitts' discharge.

Nicholas Coppage testified as an adverse witness. He was hired as a foreman for plaintiff on December 10, 1978, at the age of 19, and received three weeks of on-the-job training. Coppage testified that the blender trough was frozen when he reported for the midnight shift on January 15, 1979. He stated that the blender "freezes" when the chemical reaction between the resin, acid and sand occurs too fast. If the blender's trough is not evacuated in time, the materials remaining within the trough harden. Once this occurs, a coremaker must climb up to the trough and try to loosen the material. He further testified that the blender was frozen on a shift prior to his, and he did not know who caused this condition. He admitted that when Pitts began work with him on the midnight shift, the trough was already frozen; that Pitts spent his entire shift trying to unfreeze the trough; and that it was still frozen at the end of Pitts' shift at 8 a.m. on January 15, 1979. He did not recall telling Pitts to start the blender, and he never saw Pitts try to activate the motor. Further, he never told anyone that Pitts burned out the motor; to his knowledge, no motor burned out on his shift.

Coppage identified several maintenance reports which indicated that the blender was inoperative on January 2, 1979, because of frozen lines; that the motor on the blender burned out on January 7 and 8, 1979; and that the fuse for the blender's motor was removed on January 14, 1979, during the shift which preceded Pitts' and Coppage's shift. There was no notation of the fuse's replacement during the midnight shift. Coppage admitted that the blender could not operate without its fuses.

C. Timothy Storey, plaintiff's equipment supervisor, testified as an adverse witness that he considers himself an expert on the blender's operation. Although he admitted that there are no written instructions on the operation of the blender, he testified that each time a new operator begins the job, he receives training on the machine. Storey testified that when he arrived at work on January 15, 1979, at 8 a.m., Pitts came to his office to inform him that the blender was already frozen when he arrived for his shift, and that he had spent the entire shift trying to chip out the machine. Pitts also told him that he told his foreman about the condition of the machine. Storey testified that he conducted an investigation as to the blender's breakdown on January 15, 1979; the investigation was precipitated by a total lack of production by the blender for two shifts on January 14. He inspected the blender on January 15 and found it inoperable; he noticed mechanics working on it, but did not know what condition the motor was in. He next spoke to Mr. Ratliff, the blender's operator for the shift before Pitts'. He testified that Ratliff informed him that the blender froze during his shift, and that he had unsuccessfully attempted to unfreeze it. Storey also testified that he spoke to foreman Coppage within the next few days. After his conversation with Coppage, he recommended to Superintendent Sanetta that Pitts be terminated. The report of termination stated "First turn [shift] 1-15-79 drive motor burnup." Storey admitted that he did not see Pitts operating the blender at any time on January 15, 1979, and that he did not see who operated the motor when it burned up. When questioned as to the basis for his statement on Pitts' termination letter ("First turn [shift] 1-15-79 drive motor burnup") which he signed, Storey denied that the statement was based on a conversation that he had with Coppage, and denied that it was based on any observation of Pitts that he himself made on either January 14 and 15.

In reference to other burnouts which allegedly occurred on the blender, Storey testified that the motor had burned out on January 7, 8 and 11. He could not attribute the January 7 burnout to anyone, but he blamed Garcia for the January 8 burnout, and had written Pitts' name on his diary with reference to the January 11 incident. Garcia was not fired for the burnout. He stated that his diary showed an entry of "blender down 8 hours 4 p.m. 12 a.m. on Jan. 14th," and listed the shifts and names of the operators — Gonzalez, Ratliff and Pitts. Storey testified that the blender's motor had never burned out prior to January 7. Further, he admitted that the motor had burned out on January 17, after Pitts had been terminated, but that he did not know who was responsible. Regarding his prior statement to FEPC that he determined Pitts was responsible for the motor's burning out as a result of his conversation with Coppage, Storey could not recall if Coppage said Pitts was operating the motor when it burned out. He admitted that Pitts never confessed to him that he burned out the motor, but stated that his conversation with Coppage was important in his recommendation that Pitts be discharged.

Ratliff, a blender operator since December 1978, testified that the blender also broke down on December 10 and 15, 1978. Ratliff testified that on January 14, 1979, Augustine Gonzalez was working the blender on the 8 a.m.-4 p.m. shift. This shift was immediately before Ratliff's 4 p.m.-12 midnight shift; when Ratliff reported to work that day, the blender was already inoperable. He stated that he told his foreman that the machine was broken; when Pitts relieved him at midnight he informed Pitts that the machine was broken before he got to work, and who had broken it. He placed the blame for the blender's breakdown on Gonzalez.

Ratliff, who is black, was previously disciplined in connection with his operation of the blender. He received a written warning and later a suspension for "disregard of orders." Ratliff had no knowledge of any other nonblack blender operators who were ever severely disciplined. On cross-examination, he stated that to his knowledge, the only reason that the blender wasn't operating on January 14, 1979, was that it was frozen. However, he made no inspection of the blender's motor or its electrical system.

Columbus Pitts testified that he was never late for work as a coremaker; that he never missed any days of work during this time; and that he was never warned about his work until the time he was discharged. He stated that plaintiff's management told him that he was discharged because he broke the blender. Pitts testified that a week before his discharge, plaintiff sent two whites into the department for blender training; Pitts was told to show them how to operate the blender. One of these trainees was the man who replaced Pitts upon his discharge.

In plaintiff's case, Storey testified that the decision to terminate Pitts was based on a "series of events," including Pitts' destruction of the coreboxes. He stated that there are four fuses for the blender's motor. Further, he testified that Pitts knew that he had not burned out the blender's motor, because he had told Storey that he "tried it." Pitts was the first person ever to be terminated in connection with an incident with the blender. Two other men were terminated after Pitts, but neither for motor burnout. A copy of a written warning pertaining to Pitts' destruction of the ...


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