The opinion of the court was delivered by: J. Phil Gilbert District Judge
This matter comes before the Court on defendant Snap-on Tools Company's ("Snap-on") motion for summary judgment (Doc. 24). Plaintiffs Chris L. Cunningham ("Cunningham"), Timothy C. Ross ("Ross") and Zed Moore ("Moore") have responded to the motion (Doc. 27), and Snap-on has replied to that response (Doc. 28).
I. Summary Judgment Standard
Summary judgment is appropriate where "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); see Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986); Spath v. Hayes Wheels Int'l-Ind., Inc., 211 F.3d 392, 396 (7th Cir. 2000). The reviewing court must construe the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of that party. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986); Spath, 211 F.3d at 396. Where the moving party fails to meet its strict burden of proof, a court cannot enter summary judgment for the moving party even if the opposing party fails to present relevant evidence in response to the motion. Cooper v. Lane, 969 F.2d 368, 371 (7th Cir. 1992).
In responding to a summary judgment motion, the nonmoving party may not simply rest upon the allegations contained in the pleadings but must present specific facts to show that a genuine issue of material fact exists. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e); Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322-26; Johnson v. City of Fort Wayne, 91 F.3d 922, 931 (7th Cir. 1996). A genuine issue of material fact is not demonstrated by the mere existence of "some alleged factual dispute between the parties," Anderson, 477 U.S. at 247, or by "some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts," Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986); Michas v. Health Cost Controls of Ill., Inc., 209 F.3d 687, 692 (7th Cir. 2000). Rather, a genuine issue of material fact exists only if "a fair-minded jury could return a verdict for the [nonmoving party] on the evidence presented." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252; accord Michas, 209 F.3d at 692.
Construing all the evidence and drawing all reasonable inferences in favor of the plaintiffs, the Court finds that the following facts are established for the purpose of this motion.
A. Snap-on's Severance Plan
Until 2004, Snap-on manufactured products at a plant in Mt. Carmel, Illinois, where it employed Cunningham, Ross and Moore. At all relevant times, Snap-on had a severance benefit plan under which all plaintiffs were eligible to be covered as "exempt employees." Each plaintiff was given a written summary plan description ("Plan") when they were hired. The Plan stated, in pertinent part,
The purpose of this Plan is to provide a certain level of Severance benefits to a covered employee, whose employment with the Company [Snap-on] is terminated as a result of a covered Separation (see "Definitions" Section). To receive benefits under the Plan, an employee must file a claim for benefits and sign a Severance Benefit Release and Waiver as required by the Company.
Compl. Ex. 2, Plan at SEV-1. The "Definitions" section of the Plan defines "Separation" as the termination of the employee's employment with the Company [Snap-on], initiated and directed by the Company for reasons of: the elimination of the employee's position, organizational changes or reductions in the work force, where no generally comparable position is available and offered to the employee. The determination of whether a position is comparable rests in the sole discretion of the Company. Acceptance by the employee of a position with the Company which is not comparable, as determined by the Company, shall not be a Separation.
A Separation does not occur under any other circumstances other than as described above. . . .
The Plan also states that it "is provided at the discretion of Snap-on Incorporated which reserves the sole discretion and right to interpret and administer Plan provisions. Snap-on Incorporated is the Plan sponsor and administrator." Id. at SEV-5.
Each employee was issued a handbook in July 2001 which described the Plan, in pertinent part, as follows:
These guidelines should be followed with very few, if any, exceptions. Exceptions must be reviewed and approved in advance by your corporate HR contact. * * *
2. Eligible exempt employees will receive one and one-half weeks' compensation for each year or partial year of service when their job is eliminated.
On July 21, 2003, Snap-on informed its employees that it would close the Mt. Carmel plant some time in 2004 but did not give specific dates for the closure. More specific information followed on August 15, 2003, when Snap-on notified its employees that terminations would begin around October 15, 2003, and would continue until the plant closed around March 31, 2004.
To minimize the number of involuntary terminations during the closure period, Snap-on instituted a program where its employees could volunteer to be terminated. Brian Stone ("Stone"), Snap-on's human resources manager, sent the following e-mail to certain employees on September 26, 2003:
Two week termination notices will be issued to some hourly, exempt, and non-exempt personnel on Friday, October 3rd. If you are interested in voluntary separation, please contact me by Wednesday, October 1st. The purpose of this request is to identify individuals who would prefer to leave the Company and possibly afford other employees the opportunity to stay longer. Employees who request voluntary separation will be considered for termination on October 17th. However, individual requests may be denied based on current/future staffing, job skill and production requirements. All employees terminated on the 17th are entitled to their applicable severance package as ...