Huff began his employment with UARCO in the mid to late 1960s, and by 1977 he had risen to the level of supervisor (P. 12(N) Supp. PP3, 8). Throughout his UARCO career Huff has worked at its Watseka, Illinois plant, which designs and produces business forms (P. 12(N) P1; P. 12(N) Supp. P9).
In October 1993 UARCO's Watseka plant manager Ron Trillet ("Trillet") directed that as part of a cost-cutting effort two of the five line supervisors in the plant's finishing department should be demoted (Williams Aff. P2; Williams Dep. 21-22; Rhoades Dep. 27; P. 12(N) PP2-3; p. 12(N) Supp. P36). That would leave three line supervisors in the finishing department, a number equal to the three line supervisor positions in the adjoining press department (Williams Aff. P2).
Trillet asked Richard Rhoades ("Rhoades"), the general supervisor of the finishing department (among others), and UARCO's Watseka director of human resources Robert Williams ("Williams") to make recommendations to Trillet as to which of the supervisors should be retained (Williams Dep. 21-22, 31; Williams Aff. PP2-3; Rhoades Dep. 4, 27-28). Huff (then age 56) was one of the finishing department's five line supervisors (P. 12(N) Supp. PP3, 37), the other four being Robert Landrey ("Landrey") (age 48), Joel Nasers ("Nasers") (age 48), John Paro ("Paro") (age 54
) and Bill Schoolman ("Schoolman") (age 55) (P. 12(N) Supp. PP37-38).
Rhoades responded simply by ranking the five supervisors: Landrey was first, Paro second, Schoolman third, Huff fourth and Nasers fifth (Rhoades Dep. 27-32). Beyond making that initial ranking, Rhoades was not involved in the decision as to which two supervisors to demote (id. 31-32).
In preparing to respond to Trillet's request for recommendations on whom to demote, Williams reviewed Rhoades' ranking and interviewed two other general supervisors, Fred Focken ("Focken") and James Reutter ("Reutter") (Williams Dep. 22-25, 54-55; Williams Aff. P4). Neither Reutter nor Focken had ever directly supervised Huff (Huff Aff. P18). Focken, who was general supervisor of the press department and who had occasion to interact with the finishing department supervisors, thought that Huff and Schoolman should be demoted (Focken Dep. 4, 13-14). Reutter did not discuss Huff with Williams, but Reutter (like Focken) said that he felt Schoolman was a poor supervisor (Reutter Dep. 9-10, 18-19, 21-22).
Although Rhoades had effectively recommended demoting Huff and Nasers, Williams expressed the different view that Huff and Schoolman should be demoted. Williams also felt that Nasers and a press department supervisor, Dean Schippert ("Schippert") (age 51), should switch places--Nasers going to press and Schippert to finishing--because although Nasers was poorly ranked as a finishing supervisor, he had previously been considered an excellent supervisor in the press department (Williams Dep. 23-25; Williams Aff. PP4-5; Focken Dep. 12; Reutter Dep. 22; Trillet Dep. 80). Williams believed that those decisions would leave the press and finishing departments with the strongest overall management group (Williams Dep. 23-25).
Trillet agreed with Williams' recommendations (Williams Dep. 38). In late October 1993 Huff was demoted from his position of finishing department supervisor to that of a "collator operator"--an hourly non-supervisory position where he operates a jumbo collator machine--a position in which he is still employed (P. 12(N) P11; Huff Aff. P20).
Weisbrot v. Medical College of Wis., 79 F.3d 677, 1996 WL 140276, at *3 (7th Cir. Mar. 28) (most citations omitted) has succinctly set out Huff's burden in this age discrimination action:
An ADEA plaintiff may establish age discrimination in one of two ways. She may present direct or circumstantial evidence that age was the determining factor in the adverse employment action, or she may invoke the burdenshifting method outlined in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 93 S. Ct. 1817, 36 L. Ed. 2d 668 (1973), to create an inference of age discrimination.
Thus an employment discrimination plaintiff such as Huff may travel two "distinct evidentiary paths" ( Kormoczy v. Secretary, HUD, 53 F.3d 821, 824 (7th Cir. 1995)): One will allow Huff to survive summary judgment if he can produce evidence to support a finding of discriminatory intent (the so-called direct method), while on the second Huff can ward off summary judgment if he can outvolley UARCO in the familiar McDonnell Douglas ping-pong match (the so-called indirect method). In this case Huff (apparently heeding Yogi Berra's advice: "If you see a fork in the road, take it") has chosen both paths. So this opinion must perforce address each method of proof in turn.
1. "Direct" Method
Via this avenue Huff can survive summary judgment by producing evidence such that a reasonable jury could conclude that he was demoted because of his age. Such proof can be offered in the form of the rare "smoking gun" direct evidence--"evidence that can be interpreted as an acknowledgement of discriminatory intent by the defendant or its agents" ( Troupe v. May Dep't Stores Co., 20 F.3d 734, 736 (7th Cir. 1994)). But because employers generally are not so accommodating as to memorialize their discriminatory animus in writing or to speak it aloud, most commonly a plaintiff will have to rely on circumstantial evidence in the hopes of providing "a basis for drawing an inference of intentional discrimination" (id.).
Of course such circumstantial evidence can take a whole variety of forms, so that any attempt to list here all of the available types of proof would almost certainly fall short (or would one day be proved inadequate by some imaginative lawyer). Troupe, id. (citations omitted) has outlined the most commonly employed types of circumstantial evidence of intentional discrimination:
The first consists of suspicious timing, ambiguous statements oral or written, behavior toward or comments directed at other employees in the protected group, and other bits and pieces from which an inference of discriminatory intent might be drawn....Second is evidence, whether or not rigorously statistical, that employees similarly situated to the plaintiff other than in the characteristic (pregnancy, sex, race, or whatever) on which an employer is forbidden to base a difference in treatment received systematically better treatment7...Each type of evidence is sufficient by itself (depending of course on its strength in relation to whatever other evidence is in the case) to support a judgment for the plaintiff; or they can be used together.