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Varela v. Rock-Tenn Co.

November 2, 2006


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Honorable David H. Coar


Before this Court is defendant Rock-Tenn Company's ("Defendant") motion for summary judgment against plaintiff Jose Varela ("Plaintiff"). For the reasons set forth below, Defendant's motion for summary judgment is GRANTED.


Plaintiff was hired by Defendant for a bargaining-unit position in 1978 at the Aurora plant. Defendant's primary business is manufacturing paperboard. In 2000, Plaintiff was promoted from a bargaining-unit position to Converting Supervisor, where he remained until his layoff in 2004. The Supervisor position is a salaried, managerial position.

Prior to May 2004, Defendant's plant had both a Paperboard Department and a Laminating Department; both departments produced paperboard that was then sent to the Converting Department to be cut to customer specifications. Jose Vazquez (date of birth June 6, 1957) was Converting Supervisor for the first shift, Plaintiff (date of birth June 27, 1959) was Converting Supervisor for the second shift, Jose Vizcarra (date of birth March 9, 1967) was Converting Supervisor for the third shift. At the time of termination, Plaintiff was 45 years old, and Vizcarra was 37 years old.

The Converting Supervisors reported to the Converting Superintendent, who until May 2004 was Roger Miller. On May 3, 2004, Miller was replaced with Steve Iniquez. The General Manager, with final decision-making authority as to layoffs, was Paul Wilson.

Early in 2004, Defendant announced a price increase for its laminated paperboard products. As a result, in April and May 2004, Defendant reports to have lost its two biggest customers for laminated products, as well as suffered significant decrease in purchases by other customers. These losses caused a reduction of more than 50% in the volume of laminated products manufactured in Aurora.

Due to the reduced production of laminated products, Defendant reduced the Converting Department from three shifts to two. Around this time, Wilson held a meeting with Iniquez and Dennis Gabel, who was then the Human Resources and Safety Manager. Wilson told Iniquez to start evaluating the three Converting Supervisors to determine which he would recommend for retention. Wilson did not give Iniquez specific guidelines by which to make a recommendation.

On June 13, 2004, the plant's hourly workers went on strike. As a result, the company transferred several management employees between departments. Vizcarra ran machines alongside Plaintiff and some temporary employees at this time. Iniquez supervised both Vizcarra and Varela. During this time, Plaintiff was feeling sick and claims he was working at 50 or 60 percent of his capacity. Iniquez told Plaintiff he could go home if he was feeling sick. Plaintiff declined.

On June 15, 2004, Defendant announced that it was shutting down its laminating operations and exiting the laminated paperboard market. Wilson decided that the Converting Department would have to be further reduced, from its current two shifts to one shift. Wilson notified Iniquez that day that he had to recommend one of the three supervisors to retain.

Wilson claims he made his decision to retain Vizcarra over Plaintiff and Vazquez approximately two weeks later on June 25, 2004. The strike continued until July 2, 2004. Most of the plant was closed through July 5, 2004 for Independence Day. The salaried employees were notified of their layoffs the week of July 6, 2004. Plaintiff entered the hospital on July 5, 2004, and was diagnosed with pneumonia, and did not receive his layoff notice the week of July 6, 2004. On July 9, 2004, Plaintiff left the hospital with doctor's instructions not to return to work until July 14, 2004. On July 14, 2004, Wilson told Plaintiff that he was laid off.

Plaintiff acknowledged that Vizcarra "had better communication" with Iniquez than he did during the strike, particularly because Vizcarra helped Iniguez understand how to cut things properly. Plaintiff also acknowledges that he "didn't have much knowledge" of three of the newer machines in the Converting Department, whereas Vizcarra "had the proper training" on them and operated them during the strike.

A few days after he was informed of his termination, Plaintiff requested to return in a "lead man" position in the Converting Department.*fn1 The request was denied. Wilson claims that the denial was due to his concern about Plaintiff's willingness to work under Vizcarra's supervision, that Plaintiff did not have the mechanical skills to perform the position, and that there was no lead man position available at the time.

Plaintiff filed age discrimination charges with the Illinois Department of Human Rights (IDHR) and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) on July 21, 2004. On September 17, 2004, Iniquez sent an email to Wilson detailing his reasons for choosing to retain Vizcarra.*fn2 On October 4, 2004, Defendant issued its Position Statement in response to Plaintiff's IDHR claim. The EEOC issued Plaintiff a ...

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