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Wells v. Unisource Worldwide

May 10, 2002

ANNA D. WELLS, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
UNISOURCE WORLDWIDE, INC., DEFENDANT-APPELLEE.



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 00 C 4540--George W. Lindberg, Judge.

Before Bauer, Coffey, and Evans, Circuit Judges.

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

Argued January 23, 2002

Anna Wells claimed that her former employer, Unisource Worldwide, Inc., discriminated against her because of her race (African American) in transferring her job assignment from the state of Illinois to the state of Wisconsin. Wells also argues that Unisource discriminated against her when it refused to offer her other positions within the company after she declined to accept the transfer. Wells further claimed that the decision to transfer her position out of state was made in retaliation for her filing a discrimination claim against Unisource in 1998. Unisource presented a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the transfers--in order that it might improve communications between its sales departments and credit departments. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Unisource, ruling that Wells had failed to establish that Unisource's proffered non-discriminatory reasons for transferring the positions were pretextual. We affirm.

I. Factual Background

Unisource sells janitorial cleaning products and communication paper products in the states of Illinois and Wisconsin. Anna Wells, an African American, was initially employed by Unisource in 1993 as a data entry clerk in the state of Illinois at its Itasca plant. Three months later, Unisource promoted Wells to the position of cash applications clerk in its credit department. In 1998, Wells filed a charge of discrimination against her employer, alleging that it had discriminated against her on the basis of her race when it failed to elevate her to the position of credit administrator. Shortly after Wells filed the charge, Unisource settled the discrimination claim and agreed to promote her to the next open credit administrator position in the Itasca, Illinois, facility. In March 1999 a credit administrator position at Itasca became vacant and Unisource promoted Wells to the position.

At the time of Wells's promotion, Unisource's credit department had a bifurcated organizational structure for the assignment of accounts: credit administrators processed payments and delivery based upon whether the products purchased were office paper products ("fine paper") or janitorial supplies ("supply systems"). Additionally, credit administrators generally handled only those accounts that were located in the same state in which they were employed. Thus, credit administrators who handled Wisconsin-based "fine paper" accounts operated out of Unisource facilities in the cities of Appleton and New Berlin, Wisconsin. But for reasons not explained in the record, two credit administrators who handled Wisconsin-based "supply systems" accounts worked at Unisource's Itasca, Illinois, facility. Wells was one of the two credit administrators who handled primarily Wisconsin-based "supply systems" accounts (though she also had some Illinois-based accounts), but worked in Unisource's Itasca, Illinois, facility and not in its Wisconsin facility. The other credit administrator who handled Wisconsin-based accounts, but was employed in Illinois, was Betsy Novinski, a Caucasian female.

In March 2000, Walt Welsh, Director of Unisource's Itasca credit department, and Alice Gorman, Unisource's Human Resources Director, decided to restructure its credit department so that credit administrators were located in the same facility as the sales staff that sold its products and so that credit administrators would handle only local customer accounts. In other words, Unisource determined that the credit administrators who handled Wisconsin-based accounts should be located in its Appleton and New Berlin, Wisconsin facilities, and not in the Itasca, Illinois, facility. Unisource also believed that if the credit administrators were in the same facility as its sales staff, the sales staff could meet with the credit administrators face-to-face in order that they might better resolve customer credit problems. Unisource further believed that consolidation of the Wisconsin-based credit administrators would facilitate and improve the collection rate on Wisconsin-based accounts. Accordingly, Unisource relocated the two credit administrator positions (Wells's and Novinski's) handling Wisconsin accounts from its Itasca, Illinois, facility to its Wisconsin facilities.

Upon being informed of Unisource's decision to restructure its credit administrator positions, Novinski immedi ately applied for and received another position within Unisource's Itasca facility two months prior to the effective date of her impending transfer. In spite of the fact that Unisource informed Wells that she was free to apply for any open position in the Itasca facility, for reasons unexplained she failed to immediately apply for any other positions (as Novinski had previously done) and continued working in her soon-to-be-eliminated Itasca credit administrator position.

Approximately one month later (April 2000), a credit administrator position in the Itasca facility became available after an employee resigned and Wells submitted her application. The open position handled "fine paper" accounts and required three to five years commercial credit experience as well as the ability to handle accounts receivable portfolios with exposures ranging from four to six figures. Ultimately, the company hired Lisa Jablenski, a white female, for the position because of her superior qualifications. Jablenski had approximately 10 years experience in credit and collection where Wells had a mere thirteen months of experience in a credit administrator's position. In addition, Jablenski had been responsible for handling accounts that had exposures in the seven-figure range, whereas Wells's experience was limited to accounts with exposures in the four- to five-figure range. According to Tom Freske, Unisource's Midwest Market Area Credit Manager, the company's decision in hiring Jablenski rather than Wells was based upon her lengthy experience in the credit and collection field.

After she failed to secure the open credit administrator position in Itasca, Wells attempted to persuade Unisource to retain her in an Itasca-based credit administrator position. In this regard, Wells requested that Unisource create a part-time position for her at the Itasca facility where she would continue to handle the Illinois accounts, but Unisource declined to create this new, part-time position. Wells also applied for other positions at the Itasca facility, but failed to be selected for any of them. On April 14, 2000, Wells's position was relocated to Appleton, Wisconsin. Because Wells refused to accept a transfer to Appleton and also because she had been unsuccessful in her application for other positions at the Itasca facility, Unisource terminated her contemporaneous with the time her former position was relocated. At the time Wells was laid off, Unisource informed her that she remained free to apply for any open positions at the Itasca facility. Because Wells was unqualified to fill any of the open positions at Itasca, her applications for re-employment continued to be unsuccessful.

Wells sued Unisource after her termination, alleging discrimination based upon race (African American) inviolation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. sec. 2000e et seq., in transferring her position to Appleton and in failing to hire her for the open credit administrator position at Itasca. Wells also claimed that Unisource was guilty of unlawfully retaliating against her for her filing of the 1998 discrimination charge when it decided to transfer her position out of the state to Appleton, Wisconsin. Because Wells had failed to rebut any of Unisource's non-discriminatory reasons for implementing its restructuring plans or for selecting and hiring Lisa Jablenski (rather than Wells) for an open credit administrator position in Unisource's Itasca facility, the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Unisource. The trial court concluded that Wells failed to establish a causal connection between her 1998 filing of a discrimination charge and Unisource's employment decisions in the year 2000. Wells appeals.

II. Issues

On appeal, Wells raises two issues. Initially, Wells argues that the trial court committed error in ruling that Wells failed to establish that Unisource's proffered reasons for transferring her position were pretextual. Second, Wells argues that the trial court erred in ruling that she had failed to establish a causal connection between her 1998 filing ...


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