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CHMIEL v. OPTO TECHNOLOGY

July 19, 2004.

LARRY T. CHMIEL, Plaintiff,
v.
OPTO TECHNOLOGY, INC., and TOM HEGBERG, individually, Defendants.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: REBECCA PALLMEYER, District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff Larry Chmiel filed suit against Opto Technology, Inc. ("Opto") and its president, Tom Hegberg, alleging that they terminated his employment in order to remove him from the company's health insurance plan in violation of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act ("ERISA"), 29 U.S.C. § 1140. In addition, Chmiel claims that Opto discriminated against him on the basis of his age and a perceived disability in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act ("ADEA"), 29 U.S.C. § 621 et seq., and the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq. Defendants now seek summary judgment on all of Chmiel's claims. For the reasons explained here, the motion is granted.

BACKGROUND

  Opto manufactures and distributes optoelectronics products, which are "light emitting and light detecting sensors." (Def. 56.1 ¶ 7.)*fn1 Chmiel, an Illinois Registered Professional Engineer with approximately 20 years experience in quality control assurance, was hired to work as Opto's Quality Assurance Manager ("Quality Manager") on February 21, 2000, at the age of 57.*fn2 (Id. ¶¶ 8, 10, 11-13.) Opto's Director of Operations, John DiNardi (age 35 as of July 15, 2003), recommended that Hegberg (age 36),*fn3 then serving as Opto's Vice President and General Manager, hire a Quality Manager because he believed that Opto needed someone to oversee the quality department. (DiNardi Dep., at 14, 38; Pl. 56.1 ¶ 95; Hegberg Dep., at 7.)*fn4 DiNardi and Hegberg both interviewed Chmiel for the position and Hegberg approved DiNardi's recommendation to hire him at a bi-weekly salary of $2,692.30 (approximately $70,000 per year). (Def. 56.1 ¶¶ 15, 16, 21.)

  As Opto's Quality Assurance Manager, Chmiel supervised two or three quality inspectors and, initially, reported to DiNardi. (Id. ¶¶ 14, 19, 21.) After DiNardi resigned in May 2000, Chmiel began reporting directly to Hegberg. (Id. ¶¶ 19, 20.) When Hegberg became President of Opto in mid-2001, he began supervising Director of Engineering James Swayne, Director of Operations Ron Kiss, and an unidentified Sales Manager in addition to Chmiel.*fn5 (Pl. 56.1 ¶¶ 92, 130; Def. 56.1 Resp. ¶ 92; Hegberg Dep., at 13.)*fn6 Hegberg conducted formal annual reviews of his employees and also tried to meet with them on an informal basis every 90 days or so to discuss their performance. (Def. 56.1 ¶ 26; Pl. 56.1 Resp. ¶ 26; Hegberg Dep., at 54.)*fn7

  A. Chmiel's Performance Reviews

  At the time he was hired, Chmiel understood that his job would involve both management functions and "hands-on" work resolving management and customer problems. (Def. 56.1 ¶ 18; Pl. 56.1 Resp. ¶ 18; Chmiel Dep., pp. 76-77.) Chmiel's management functions included preparing the processes and procedures for quality inspection of products; analyzing products returned by customers to determine the cause of any defects; and preparing failure analysis reports ("FARs") and corrective action reports describing the cause of any identified defects. (Pl. 56.1 ¶¶ 112, 106.) Throughout his employment, Chmiel prepared more than 100 inspection processes and procedures for Opto. His performance in preparing FARs and corrective action reports was very good. (Id. ¶ 109; Hegberg Dep., at 107.) Hegberg states, however, that at each of his quarterly meetings with Chmiel, he urged Chmiel to learn more about Opto's products and become more "hands-on." (Hegberg Aff. ¶ 5.) Chmiel denies this but admitted at his deposition that Hegberg did tell him to spend more time in the shop working with quality inspectors:
Q: Did Mr. Hegberg ever ask you to spend more time back in the shop rolling up your sleeves, working with the quality inspectors?
A: He has made that comment.
(Chmiel Dep., at 129.)

  Hegberg formally evaluated Chmiel's performance twice during Chmiel's tenure with Opto. Around the first anniversary of Chmiel's employment in February 2001, Hegberg indicated that he was generally satisfied with Chmiel's performance but urged him to become more familiar with Opto's product line and to spend more time out of his office on the production floor assisting the quality inspectors, engineers, and manufacturing employees. (Def. 56.1 ¶ 25; Hegberg Aff. ¶ 4.) Specifically, Hegberg indicated that Chmiel needed to "work more with the QC [quality control] staff to help them grow within the company professionally." (PX S, Annual Staff Performance Evaluation of 2/20/01, at 3.) Citing DiNardi's deposition testimony, Chmiel insists that he was in fact spending half of his time on the production floor. (Pl. 56.1 Resp. ¶ 25; DiNardi Dep., p. 34.) DiNardi, however, was no longer working at Opto for the eight months leading up to Chmiel's February 2001 review. (Def. 56.1 ¶ 19, Pl. 56.1 Resp. ¶ 19.) In any event, it is undisputed that Hegberg gave Chmiel a 7.5% salary increase at that time. (Id. ¶ 24; Pl. 56.1 ¶ 102.)

  Hegberg evaluated Chmiel a second time in February or March 2002. On this occasion, Hegberg told Chmiel that he needed to "improve his technical understanding and ability with respect to Opto's products so that he could participate more in discussions with sales, marketing and engineering about designs." (Def. 56.1 ¶ 29; Pl. 56.1 Resp. ¶ 29.) Hegberg told Chmiel he believed that Chmiel would earn more respect from the engineering staff if he knew more about the design and operations of Opto's products, and that he needed to improve his follow-through on projects. (Id. ¶¶ 30, 31; Chmiel Dep., at 156, 167.) Indeed, on Chmiel's Annual Exempt Performance Evaluation, Hegberg indicated that he had "concern[s] about [Chmiel's] product knowledge" and stated that Chmiel's "follow through is not acceptable." (DX 8, Annual Exempt Performance Evaluation of 4/2/02, at 2-3.) Hegberg gave Chmiel a 4 or 4.5% salary increase in connection with the 2002 review which, Hegberg says, reflected his belief that although Chmiel was doing some things well, he needed to be more involved in manufacturing and develop more knowledge of the company's products.*fn8 (Def. 56.1 ¶ 28; Pl. 56.1 ¶ 103; Hegberg Dep., at 132; DX 8.)

  In addition to annual merit-based raises, Chmiel (and all other Opto employees) had the opportunity to earn a discretionary bonus of up to 5% of his salary each year for exceeding performance goals. (Def. 56.1 ¶¶ 21, 22.) The parties do not indicate whether Chmiel received an incentive bonus in 2001, but he did not receive one in 2002. (Id. ¶ 23.)

  B. Chmiel's Medical Conditions

  As an Opto employee, Chmiel was a participant in the company's medical insurance plan (the "Plan"), an ERISA welfare plan. (Def. 56.1 ¶¶ 33, 34.) See 29 U.S.C. § 1002(1). During his employment, Chmiel had certain medical conditions, including cataracts, diabetes, small blood vessel disease in the brain, and meningioma ("a benign, slow-growing tumor" of the membranes enveloping the brain and spinal chord). DORLAND'S ILLUSTRATED MEDICAL DICTIONARY, 28th ed., p. 1010. (See also Def. 56.1 ¶ 36; Pl. 56.1 ¶ 127.) Chmiel openly discussed the fact that he was having cataract surgery in the summer of 2002, but he never told anyone at Opto about the diabetes, small blood vessel disease, or meningioma. Hegberg says that he was not aware of the latter three conditions and never discussed them with anyone at Opto, including Senior Human Resource Generalist and Financial Specialist, Brenda Muehlfeld (age 25 as of September 12, 2002). (Def. 56.1 ¶¶ 37-40; Pl. 56.1 ¶¶ 128, 134, 154; PX X.) Muehlfeld similarly denies any knowledge of Chmiel's diabetes, small blood vessel disease, or meningioma. (Muehlfeld Dep., at 65.)

  Chmiel infers that Hegberg did in fact know about all of his medical conditions because Hegberg knew that Unum Provident Insurance and Mass Mutual Insurance had both declined his applications for long-term disability insurance around the time he was hired. Specifically, Chmiel met with Brian Ullrich of Ullrich Brokerage Limited, the insurance and securities brokerage that assisted Opto with its employee benefit plans, and provided information to apply for long-term disability insurance. Ullrich filled out the application form based on his interview with Chmiel and forwarded it to Unum Provident, which declined to provide coverage. Ullrich unsuccessfully appealed the decision to Provident, and also looked for alternative coverage with other carriers, including Mass Mutual. Mass Mutual similarly declined to provide coverage for Chmiel, and Ullrich ultimately concluded that there was no market for providing him with disability insurance. Because Opto was the insurance applicant on behalf of Chmiel, Ullrich notified Hegberg that Chmiel had been declined for long-term disability coverage. (Pl. 56.1 ¶¶ 157-163, 166; Pl. 56.1 Resp. ¶¶ 38, 39; Ullrich Dep., at 5-6, 12-15, 18.) Ullrich testified, however, that he has no knowledge as to why Chmiel's application was denied and was never privy to any of the underlying medical information (and therefore could not have conveyed such information to Hegberg). (Ullrich Dep., at 16-17.) Chmiel concedes that Ullrich instructed Unum Provident and Mass Mutual to provide all medical information directly to Chmiel's doctors due to its confidential nature. (Id.; Pl. 56.1 ¶ 164.)

  C. Chmiel's Discharge

  Hegberg claims that after his February or March 2002 performance review, Chmiel failed to improve his product knowledge, to spend more time on the production floor, or to follow through on projects to Hegberg's satisfaction. (Def. 56.1 ¶¶ 59, 60; Hegberg Aff. ¶ 11.) Chmiel objects that Hegberg "could not have observed the total amount of time Plaintiff spent on the production floor," but Hegberg testified that in addition to his own observations, he received complaints about Chmiel's lack of involvement from Director of Operations Kiss, planner/scheduler Helen Kuzmyn, quality inspector Hahn Kantorski, and team leader/production supervisor Rita Ritchie.*fn9 Muehlfeld also told Hegberg that employees complained to her about the same issue. (Hegberg Dep., at 84-85, 89, 92-98; Pl. 56.1 Resp. ¶ 60; Def. 56.1 ¶ 61.) Kiss testified that he had received similar employee complaints regarding Chmiel's failure to spend time on the production floor, and that he personally found Chmiel's technical and product knowledge less than satisfactory. To that end, Kiss told Hegberg that Chmiel needed to be more hands-on and have a better understanding of Opto's products. (Def. 56.1 ¶¶ 62-64.) Chmiel counters, without any record citation, that Kiss thought his performance was strong. (Pl. 56.1 Resp. ¶¶ 62, 63.)

  In early August 2002, Hegberg met with Chmiel and set specific performance goals relating to product knowledge and time on the production floor. (Def. 56.1 ¶ 65; Hegberg Dep., at 56-58, 177-78; Pl. 56.1 ¶ 121.) Chmiel has no recollection of the meeting and notes that Hegberg neither documented the performance goals nor provided a deadline for improvement. (Pl. 56.1 ¶¶ 121, 124.) As noted, however, he admits that Hegberg told him to spend more time in the shop working with the quality inspectors. (Chmiel Dep., at 129.)

  Also in or about August 2002, Hegberg decided that Opto did not need an employee solely to manage Opto's quality assurance activities, "especially one who did not know the products and who did not spend sufficient time working with the production employees, engineers and quality inspectors." Rather, Hegberg believed that Opto needed a quality control and assurance employee who was actively involved with quality inspectors and production employees. (Def. 56.1 ¶¶ 67, 68.) As a result, Hegberg decided to terminate Chmiel's employment on September 30, 2002. (Id. ¶¶ 69, 71, 72.) Hegberg paid Chmiel's salary through October 30, 2002 and his health insurance premiums through November 15, 2002. In addition, to assist Chmiel with his search for a new position, Hegberg gave him a reference letter drafted by Muehlfeld. (Id. ¶¶ 73, 74.) That letter stated that Chmiel "proved himself to be a talented report writer and an inquisitive employee. He was eager to learn about all aspects of the company. Overall, [Chmiel] was always a great help to me. I certainly believe he has what it takes to become an asset to any quality department." (PX H.)

  At Chmiel's request, Ron Kiss also agreed to serve as a reference "[b]ecause I believe in certain positions, in certain companies, he would be a better benefit." (Kiss Dep., at 74.) Chmiel claims that when he called Kiss sometime in October 2002 to ask him to be a reference, Kiss stated he was "dumbfounded" as to why Hegberg let Chmiel go. Kiss testified, however, that he had personally told Hegberg that Chmiel needed to be ...


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