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Lynch v. Alpharma

April 27, 2006

THOMAS LYNCH, PLAINTIFF,
v.
ALPHARMA, INC. DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Marvin E. Aspen, District Judge

MEMORANDUM ORDER AND OPINION

Plaintiff Thomas E. Lynch filed a two count complaint against defendant Alpharma, Inc. wherein he alleges that Alpharma terminated him in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act ("ADEA"), 29 U.S.C. §§ 621, et seq., and Section 510 of ERISA, 29 U.S.C. § 1140. Presently before us is Alpharma's motion for summary judgment. As explained below, we grant the motion.

BACKGROUND*fn1

In 1981, Lynch began working for Alpharma's animal feed division "as an operator and production supervisor for [the] Chicago Heights [production] facility." (Pl. Resp. to Def. Mot. for Summ. J. (hereinafter "Pl. Resp. to Mot.") at 1.) Over the course of his 24 year tenure, Lynch successfully rose through the ranks to become the production superintendent, who is responsible for overseeing the daily operations, including safety and supervisory obligations. (Id.; Def. Mot. for Summ. J. (hereinafter "Def. Mot."); Pl. Facts ¶ 77.)

A. The Chemical Spill

On March 24, 2005, Lynch accepted a delivery of caustic soda, a chemical used at the facility, but was required to pump approximately 150 gallons of the chemical into day tanks because the entire load would not fit in the caustic tank. (Def. Facts ¶ 23; Pl. Resp. to Def. Facts ¶ 23.) Some of the caustic soda spilled into the dike surrounding the caustic tank, which was designed to capture any overflow. (Pl. Resp. to Mot. at 2.) Alpharma's Emergency Response Plan sets out protocols for handling chemical spills depending on the volume and type of chemical involved. (Def. Facts ¶ 12; Pl. Resp. to Def. Facts ¶ 12.) "Fifty-five (55) gallons or less of [caustic soda] ... would be considered incidental with anything more being considered a large spill." (Id.) "Large spills require the production superintendent to notify the [Emergency Coordinator,]" (Def. Facts ¶ 13; Pl. Resp. to Def. Facts ¶ 13.), whereas minor or incidental spills only require employees to report the situation to a supervisor and to the Division EHS Manager in a monthly report. (Pl. Facts ¶ 80.)

The parties dispute whether the caustic soda spill was large or incidental. On March 25, Mark Burnison observed three to four inches of the liquid chemical in the dike. (Id.) That same day "[Norm] Hansen estimated the level of caustic soda in the dike at ten inches." (Def. Facts ¶ 40; Pl. Facts ¶ 96.) Based on Hansen's measurements, Bryan Hunt calculated that 600 gallons of caustic soda were in the dike. (Id.) However, on March 24, Lynch only "observed 1 to 2 inches of caustic material in the dike, amounting to no more than 50 gallons." (Pl. Facts ¶ 85.) Lynch testified that he had also noticed "4 to 5 inches of caustic residue on the bottom and sides of the dike resulting from a prior overflow[, which would] amount to approximately 200 to 300 gallons of caustic material." (Pl. Facts ¶ 95.)

Regardless of the extent of the spill, it is undisputed that Lynch did not apprise Hunt, the Emergency Coordinator, of the incident on March 24. (Pl. Resp. to Def. Facts ¶ 35.) Rather, Lynch briefed Hansen, his assistant and subordinate, and informed him that he would need to fill out an incident report because Lynch was scheduled to go on vacation for nine days beginning March 25. (Pl. Resp. to Def. Facts ¶ 31; Pl. Facts ¶ 88.)

It is also undisputed that "Lynch had personal supervisory responsibility for internal clean ups." (Pl. Resp. to Def. Facts ¶ 34.) In an attempt to fulfill his duties, Lynch left a note for "Manuel Maddox, the most qualified operator, to clean up the caustic overflow during the night shift[]" before Lynch left the facility on March 24th. (Pl. Resp. at ¶ 2; Pl. Resp. to Def. Facts ¶ 31.)

Lynch advised Burnison, the production engineer, of his decision to have Maddox take care of the leak. (Pl. Resp. to Def. Facts ¶ 32; Pl. Facts ¶ 90.) However, Lynch forgot that he gave Maddox the night off. (Pl. Resp. to Def. Facts ¶ 30.) Consequently, the spill was not cleaned up until the next day, after Thorn Creek Sanitary District advised Alpharma that the sewer water coming out of the plant had an elevated pH level. (Id. ¶¶ 30, 36, 42.)

While searching for the source of the elevated pH levels, Burnison discovered that the containment dike had a leak, at which time he paged Hansen and reported his findings. (Id. ¶¶ 37-38.) Hunt and Stephanie Clemons, the safety coordinator, joined the group at the dike to assess the situation. Hunt asked Hansen to compose the incident report, but he then edited the document because Hansen's draft lacked sufficient detail and "contained a tone that was 'too soft' and 'not accusatory enough.'" (Pl. Facts ¶ 100.) However, the spill was not solely the result of Creek Basin Sanitary District, Clemons noted that the "level meter on the caustic storage tank was not working properly[,]" (Pl. Facts ¶ 103.), and the incident report listed the condition of the containment dike as a contributing factor to the spill. (Pl. Facts ¶ 125.) Burnison and Hansen cleaned the chemical spill while Hunt went to speak with Mike McDaniel, the human resources manager to discuss the incident. (Def. Facts ¶ 43; Pl. Resp. to Def. Facts¶¶37-38, 42; Pl. Facts¶ 97.)

B. The Decision to Terminate Lynch

Hunt and McDaniel then contacted Deric Cheuvront, Director of Human Resources, and Terry Wilcox, Director of Manufacturing, to discuss appropriate disciplinary measures for Lynch. (Id. ¶ 45.) "The group decided Hunt and McDaniel should meet with Lynch to hear his side of the story before making any final decisions." (Id. ¶ 48.) At the meeting with his superiors, Lynch explained that the caustic overflow did not "seem like it was that much ... of a spill." (Pl. Resp. to Def. Facts ¶ 49.) "Hunt repeatedly told Lynch he should have reported the spill to him. Lynch and Hunt disagreed over what incidents need to be reported." (Def. Facts ¶ 52; Pl. Resp. to Def. Facts ¶ 52.) Hunt and McDaniel reported to Wilcox and Cheuvront about the meeting with Lynch, informing them that Lynch "continued to believe that his course of action, leaving a note for an off-duty operator to clean up a caustic spill and then leaving on a 9-day vacation, was acceptable for someone in his position of authority." (Def. Facts ¶¶ 53, 54; Pl. Resp. to Def. Facts ¶ 54.)

Hunt, McDaniel, Wilcox, and Cheuvront believed that Lynch's length of service to the company, his "knowledge of the plant and production process[,]" and his rapport with other employees all weighed in his favor. (Def. Facts ¶ 61; Pl. Resp. to Def. Facts ¶ 61.) McDaniel testified that during discussions concerning disciplining Lynch, the group considered "Mr. Lynch's position within the company; the fact that he was a manager and had managerial responsibility. And towards Mr. Lynch's benefits, we also discussed his length of service with the company." (Pl. Resp. to Def. Facts ¶ 75.) However, the "issue of Mr. Lynch's eligibility for benefits did not enter the discussion." (Def. Resp. to ...


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