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Pearl v. Keystone Consolidated Industries Inc.

decided: September 25, 1989.


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of Illinois, Peoria Division. No. 86 C 1197 -- Michael M. Mihm, Judge.

Cudahy, Manion, and Kanne, Circuit Judges.

Author: Manion

MANION, Circuit Judge

Virginia Pearl, who is black, began working for Keystone Consolidated Industries, a steel products manufacturer, at its Bartonville, Illinois plant in 1966. After working in various clerical and secretarial positions through the years, Pearl was promoted to a Secretary "A" position in Keystone's Sales Department in 1979.

At the time Pearl worked in Keystone's sales department, Keystone divided its product lines into two groups. One group was "wire products," a group that included fence materials, barbed wire, and similar products. The second group was "industrial and construction products," a group that included steel bars, steel wire rods, and other products that Keystone sold to customers for further processing. Keystone similarly divided its sales department into two groups, one focusing its efforts on wire products and the other on industrial products.

Pearl was secretary for the industrial products group. She also served as secretary for Keystone's Customer Services Department, a separate sub-department within the sales department. The Customer Services Department employed four Customer Services Representatives, three for wire products, and one for industrial products. The Customer Services Representatives had a variety of duties, including taking telephone orders, arranging transportation for shipments to customers, and handling customer complaints. In her job, Pearl performed the typical secretarial duties, including typing, answering the phone, and the like. Besides those duties, however, Pearl also served as a backup for the customer services representatives and at times performed many, if not all, of the customer services representatives' functions.

During the early 1980's, Keystone was experiencing huge operating losses. The Bartonville facility itself lost about $2 million per month during January, February, and March of 1982. Keystone's steel and wire operations were purchased in January 1982, and new ownership demanded that the plant's management take steps to restore profitability. Management responded by sharply reducing the plant's work force and restructuring the remaining work force.

As part of the restructuring, Keystone eliminated the Secretary A position in the industrial products group, and combined its duties with additional duties to create a new job position entitled "Sales Assistant." Nicholas Owens, the Bartonville Operations President, and Ken Kirschner, the general sales manager for industrial products, had to decide who to choose to fill the new position. Owens and Kirschner considered Pearl for the job, but decided that she was not qualified for it. Owens and Kirschner instead selected Dolores Tarkowski, a white employee, to fill the position. Because of the decisions to eliminate Pearl's Secretary A position and not to select her to fill the new Sales Assistant position, Keystone discharged Pearl on April 30, 1982.

Pearl filed a Title VII action against Keystone, alleging that Keystone had discharged her because of her race. At trial, Keystone contended that it had discharged Pearl because Tarkowski was more qualified than Pearl to perform the Sales Assistant's duties. Kirschner testified (by way of a deposition taken in an earlier proceeding Pearl had initiated before the Illinois Human Rights Commission) that he had envisioned the Sales Assistant as having three principal duties: secretarial duties (typing, etc.); backing up the wire products' Customer Services Representative and assuming primary customer service duty for certain products; and compiling new and detailed reports to supply timely data to sales department staff. According to Kirschner, the Sales Assistant's duties, particularly the new reporting functions, would entail a great deal more technical work than the old Secretary A position. Kirschner had been Pearl's direct supervisor for the last month or two before her firing. He had given her some simple reporting functions but noticed that she had difficulty with mathematics and seemed not to understand the numbers she was compiling or the reports' purpose. This led Kirschner to doubt that Pearl would be competent to handle adequately the Sales Assistant's reporting functions. Additionally, based on his observation of Pearl's work assisting the wire products' Customer Services Representative, Kirschner feared that Pearl could not adequately handle that task either.

As to Tarkowski, Kirschner testified that he relied heavily on the recommendation of Lee Murray, Keystone's Director of Material and Operations Services. Tarkowski had been Murray's secretary before being promoted to the position of Management Action Plan (MAP) Coordinator in the plant's wire mill scheduling department. Murray had been very impressed with Tarkowski's work. In evaluating Tarkowski, Murray had consistently given her the highest scores possible. Murray had also given Tarkowski more responsibility in her job, and had consistently recommended her for promotion. Based upon Murray's recommendation and evaluations, Tarkowski's education (a bachelor's degree in management) and his own understanding of the functions Tarkowski had performed as MAP Coordinator (which, according to Kirschner's understanding, included preparing reports similar to the ones he was anticipating the Sales Assistant would prepare), Kirschner concluded that Tarkowski was the person for the new Sales Assistant job.

Owens agreed that Tarkowski, not Pearl, was better qualified for the Sales Assistant's job. Owens based this conclusion partly on information he received from Kirschner, and partly from his own experiences with Pearl. Owens had worked with Pearl from October 1977 to September 1979. Owens testified that although he considered Pearl a good employee and a pleasant person to work with, she had only average secretarial ability, and he believed the Sales Assistant job was beyond her ability. Owens also placed great stock in Murray's recommendation of Tarkowski. According to Owens, Murray was a technically oriented, meticulous manager who demanded near-perfection from his secretary, particularly in handling data and preparing reports. In Owens' mind, for Tarkowski to receive Murray's glowing praise had to have meant that Tarkowski was a superior employee.

The district court found that race was not a substantial motivating factor in the decision to discharge Pearl. The district court believed that Keystone had told the truth about its reasons for discharging Pearl. According to the court, Keystone discharged Pearl because her job had been eliminated and because Kirschner and Owens, the relevant decision-makers, believed Tarkowski was better qualified for the Sales Assistant's job.

The court's decision was essentially a decision to credit Owens' and Kirschner's testimony regarding their reasons for choosing Tarkowski over Pearl. We may not overturn that decision -- or the resulting findings that Kirschner and Owens chose Tarkowski because she was more qualified and that race was not a substantial motivating factor in the decision to discharge Pearl -- unless that decision and those findings were clearly erroneous. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 52(a); Anderson v. Bessemer City, 470 U.S. 564, 84 L. Ed. 2d 518, 105 S. Ct. 1504(1985) (ultimate finding in discrimination case governed by Rule 52's clearly erroneous standard).

Pearl insists that Owens' and Kirschner's testimony was "seriously inconsistent, . . . contrary to established laws of nature . . . fantastic . . . [and] irreconcilably in conflict with documentary . . . evidence . . . or evidence of equivalent certainty." See Bullard v. Sercon Corp., 846 F.2d 463, 466 (7th Cir. 1988). For that reason, says Pearl, the district court clearly erred in believing it. Pearl argues that the evidence shows that Owens and Kirschner really had no problems with Pearl's performance. Pearl notes that the record contains no documents relating Owens' and Kirschner's concerns about Pearl's performance, and that there is no evidence that either had ever complained about Pearl's performance until required to explain why they had discharged her. Moreover, Pearl asserts that all other witnesses called to testify about her performance testified that she was doing a competent job. Pearl also asserts that the new Sales Assistant job was really nothing more than the job that she ...

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