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Peele v. Country Mutual Insurance Co.

April 30, 2002


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 99 C 638--James B. Zagel, Judge.

Before Manion, Rovner, and Evans, Circuit Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Manion, Circuit Judge

Argued January 18, 2002

Patricia Peele sued her former employer, Country Mutual Insurance Company, alleging that the company violated Title VII and the ADEA by discriminating against her on the basis of sex and age. Country Mutual moved for summary judgment, and the district court granted the company's motion. In doing so, the district court assumed Peele established prima facie cases of sex and age discrimination, but concluded she had not demonstrated that the company's proffered reason for her termination, i.e., poor job performance, was pretextual. Peele appeals the decision, and we affirm.


On March 20, 1989, Patricia Peele (then age 48) was hired by Country Mutual Insurance Company as a claims support representative ("CSR") for the company's Grayslake, Illinois office. As a CSR, Peele was responsible for processing, assigning, tracking, and maintaining claims files. She was also occasionally assigned single vehicle accident files to resolve. In April 1990, she received her first annual performance review. Peele's supervisor, Dennis Bates, rated her performance as "competent."*fn1 In his written evaluation, Bates noted that Peele "handles all processing a large amount of claims answers the phone. She gets along well with others and is dependable." She also received favorable annual reviews (i.e., "competent" ratings) in 1991 and 1992.

In 1993, Country Mutual changed the format of its annual review process. Under the new system, the rankings on the evaluation form were (in descending order): "Exceeds Requirements 2," "Exceeds Requirements 1," "Meets Require ments 3," "Meets Requirements 2," "Meets Requirements 1," "Needs Improvement 2," and "Needs Improvement 1." Peele received a "Meets Requirements 3" rating for her annual review in 1993.*fn2 In his written evaluation, Bates noted that "Pat is always very pleasant with everyone. She stays in the office and does her work. Seldom wastes time. She has gotten better at using audits but still has a ways to go. Her files are always well documented and easy to follow . . . ." After receiving another "Meets Requirements 3" rating in 1994, Country Mutual promoted Peele (then age 54) to a class one claims representative ("CR1"). As a CR1, Peele was charged with handling single vehicle claims. In 1995, at her new position, she received the same "Meets Requirements 3" rating.

In 1996, Peele's rating dropped to "Meets Requirements 2." In his written evaluation, Bates noted that "Pat is very dependable and always willing to help when asked. She handles all single vehicle accidents and deer losses for the most part. She gets along well with her co-workers and has no problems with the insureds." He did, however, criticize Peele's lack of aggressiveness and her slowness in working through claims, and indicated that she needed to work on her "bring-ups." A modernized bring-up system was instituted by Country Mutual in 1994 as one component of a "Model Office" system. The Model Office system included "Best Practices," a set of guidelines for contacting insureds, obtaining appraisals, collecting statements, and bringing claims files to a conclusion.*fn3 The bring-up system is a computerized tickler system that tracks the timely handling of claims according to the Best Practices guidelines. Country Mutual required each of its claims representatives to be current in their bring-ups for the claims files they handled. The company's claims supervisors are authorized to, and regularly access, each claims representative's bring-ups to monitor their compliance with Best Practices.

In January 1997, in spite of the recent drop in her performance rating, Peele (then age 56) was promoted to claims representative II-Field ("CR2").*fn4 As a CR2, she was assigned more complex casualty claims involving comparative negligence, multi-vehicle claims and/or property claims, along with field work for accident site investigations and witness interviews. On March 18, 1997, after only a few months on the job, Peele received an "annual" review of her performance as a CR2. Bates gave her a "Meets Requirements 1" rating, the company's lowest level of satisfactory job performance. In his written evaluation, Bates noted that while Peele was "dependable and always willing to help when asked," she still needed to be more "aggressive" and make sure that her files were properly documented.*fn5 Bates also indicated that he had discussed with Peele "her shortcomings since her move to the field [the CR2 position]," advised her that "[h]er complaints on the Claims surveys is one of the highest in the office," and informed her that she needed "to work on getting this turned around."

In September 1997, Gary Hanenberger (then age 40) replaced Bates as the claims supervisor for the Grayslake, Illinois office. Prior to his arrival at the Grayslake office, Hanenberger had been the claims supervisor at the company's office in Rolling Meadows, Illinois. Both before and after his transfer, Hanenberger actively reviewed his claims representatives' on-line activities logs (i.e., computerized calenders and to-do lists used to chart the progress of pending claims) to monitor their compliance with Best Practices. He generally conducted these reviews on-line through each claims representative's activity log. Hanenberger also maintained a practice of conducting quarterly performance reviews of the claims representatives under his supervision, in addition to their annual performance reviews. On December 5, 1997, Hanenberger conducted his first quarterly review of Peele. In his written evaluation, he noted "[i]n reviewing Pat's files the last three months, I still feel that she needs to work on keeping the insured informed so there [are] no questions [left unanswered]." He also informed Peele that she needed "to work on customer service results," "complete file investigation in a timely manner," and "meet all Best Practices."

On February 18, 1998, Country Mutual performed a "supervisor audit" of all the claims files in the Grayslake office.*fn6 Michael Kearns, one of the company's district managers, oversaw the audit. As a follow-up to the audit, Donald Weber, a district training coordinator, reviewed several of the files at the Grayslake office (including some of Peele's), and prepared an evaluation for each claims representative. In his evaluation of Peele, Weber made the following observations about her files: "[lacked] conclusion letters to the insured," "[lacked] proper investigation," "[m]ost all need more in terms of statements and follow-up investigation," "[c]omparative seems to be a big problem," "[m]any files did not have OALs [i.e., on-line activity logs] in file after closing, and those that did often lacked proper documentation," and "use of a dedicated bring-up system is mandatory in all files." He also advised Peele that her "[o]verall investigations need[ed] to be more timely, thorough and meaningful," that the "[d]ocumentation in [her] file[s] must back up and justify the decisions made based on that investigation," and that she needed to be "more aggressive [in] follow-up and MUST use [the] active bring-up system."

On March 10, 1998, Hanenberger conducted his first annual review of Peele. He assigned her a "Needs Improvement 2" rating, indicating that she was no longer meeting the expectations of her position. In his written evaluation, Hanenberger noted "Pat needs to improve in several area's [sic] to meet the requirements of her position." He also informed Peele that she was required to meet the Best Practices guidelines, conduct proper and timely investigations, apply comparative negligence, keep the customer informed, and keep her files on the bring-up system updated. Hanenberger concluded the evaluation by advising that he would conduct a "follow-up file review" at the end of the month, and noting "I'm confident that Pat will work hard to improve on these area's [sic] and meet her objectives for the coming year."

On March 25, 1998, Hanenberger conducted the follow-up evaluation of Peele's files, and once again documented numerous performance deficiencies, noting "[w]e have discussed your performance several times in the past 7 months and I still do not see a marked improvement in your job performance. Although, after we talk it seems to improve for awhile, then your performance tends to drop back below an acceptable level." He then outlined five specific problem areas: (1) investigation; (2) keeping the customer informed; (3) use of the bring-up system; (4) application of comparative negligence; and (5) customer survey results. Hanenberger informed Peele that he would "review her files for the next 30 days," and advised that her "failure to comply with correcting [these] performance problems . . . could result in termination of employment."

On May 5, 1998, Hanenberger issued yet another memorandum documenting Peele's job performance deficiencies. While acknowledging some improvement, he found that she was still having problems with customer service and the bring-up system. Hanenberger decided, however, to give Peele another 30 days to correct these deficiencies because there ...

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