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Gates v. Caterpillar

January 16, 2008

JERI L. GATES, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
CATERPILLAR, INC., DEFENDANT-APPELLEE.



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of Illinois. No. 04-C-1160-Michael M. Mihm,Judge.

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

ARGUED FEBRUARY 7, 2007

Before FLAUM, ROVNER and EVANS, Circuit Judges.

Jeri L. Gates alleges that Caterpillar, Inc. ("Caterpillar") engaged in unlawful sexual discrimination and retaliation in violation of Title VII. The district court granted Caterpillar's motion for summary judgment, Gates appealed and we now affirm.

I.

Gates began working at Caterpillar in 1978 as a clerk and held various administrative positions at the company between 1978 and 1990. In October 1990, Gates joined the New Technology Department ("NTD") of Cater-pillar's Technical Services Division ("TSD") as an Assistant Contract Administrator, becoming a Contract Administrator in 1997. As such, Gates was responsible for administering various aspects of Caterpillar's contracts including "closing out" contracts by confirming that Caterpillar had fulfilled its delivery obligations, the customer had paid Caterpillar and both sides agreed that the contract was complete.

In late 2001, Randall Richards joined the TSD and became Gates' supervisor. At the outset Richards, with input from Gates, assessed the department's workload and productivity and ultimately determined that the unit would benefit from hiring additional employees. Because Gates was the most experienced employee in the group, she became responsible for training and coaching some of the new unit members. At that time, Richards offered her the role of "Team Leader," which would have involved officially managing the work performance of the others in the group. Gates, dissatisfied with various aspects of the job, declined.

Both before and after Richards joined the TSD, Gates had applied for open positions within other divisions of Caterpillar in an effort to advance her career. Although she consistently sought the support of her supervisors in making this internal job switch, Gates believed that she did not have her superiors' backing because her leaving the group would create a void. In February 2002, Gates met with Barbara Shane, then TSD's Personnel Services Supervisor, to discuss the situation. In an effort to address Gates' concerns, Shane facilitated a meeting between herself, Richards and Mike Simmons (Richards' supervisor). This meeting was followed by a series of meetings between Gates, Shane, Richards and Simmons in mid-to-late-February. Although Gates continued to make clear that she wanted to leave the unit to pursue other opportunities within Caterpillar, her supervisors determined that she should not transition to another position until the new administrators in the department were properly trained. Eventually, in March 2002, Gates, Shane, Richards and Simmons agreed to designate Shane as the "Training Leader" and established new work goals for her.

Shortly thereafter, Richards became critical of Gates' job performance and her failure to meet these new work goals. Also around this same time, Richards began hearing complaints from Gates' co-workers that Gates was spending a lot of time on personal matters. At Richards' request, Shane initiated an investigation, asking Amy Winkler, a Personnel Assistant in Caterpillar's Human Resources Department, to look into Gates' telephone and Internet usage while at work. At that time, Caterpillar employees were subject to an Electronic Communications Policy which, in relevant part, directed that personal use should be limited and governed by good judgment and discretion. Winkler reported that over the course of the 89 recent work days she reviewed, Gates made 489 calls from her telephone exchange, the majority of which (432) were personal. Winkler also found that between January 10 and April 30, 2002, Gates was on the Internet an average of 18 minutes a day, making approximately 2700 "hits" to Bradley University (where Gates was a student) and approximately 316 hits to other non-work-related websites including tanning equipment websites and a tax website.*fn1

Shane and Richards reviewed the telephone and Internet usage reports, which they believed to be accurate and which they thought indicated an abuse by Gates of Caterpillar's phone and computer policy. Shane, Richards, Winkler and Randy Koors (the Business Support Manager in the TSD Support Services Department who was scheduled to take over responsibility for supervising the contract administrative employees in the upcoming months) discussed the situation. Upon a recommendation from Shane, Richards decided to suspend Gates.

On May 24, 2002, Richards and Shane met with Gates, informed her that she was suspended for five days and presented her with an Employee Action Plan ("EAP"). The EAP explained that Gates was being disciplined for her misuse of Caterpillar's time and equipment as well as her failure to take adequate responsibility for work assignments. The EAP mandated, and Richards verbally reiterated, that over the course of her suspension, Gates was to contact only Richards, if necessary, and should not contact any other team-members or co-workers at TSD. The EAP cautioned that "[f]ailure to adhere to the policies specifically noted above, as well as any other company policies will result in termination." R. 18, Ex. V. Richards also told Gates that following the suspension, her performance would be evaluated relative to a specific contract close-out and training schedule, a copy of which he gave to her at that time.

While Gates was on suspension, Richards, through Caterpillar's email system, received an email from Gates protesting her suspension. In the course of preparing a "rebuttal" and in an effort to buttress her position that Richards' closeout schedule was unreasonable, Gates also emailed various Caterpillar customers as well as contractors at other companies to solicit their opinions on contract close-out timing. All of these emails were sent from Gates' Caterpillar account, through Caterpillar's intranet which Gates accessed using her fiancé's "I-Pass" card, an access card issued by Caterpillar to allow access to the Company's information system and intended and authorized only for use by the employee to whom it was issued.

On June 3, 2002, Gates returned to work from her disciplinary suspension, met with Richards, Shane and Koors and presented her written rebuttal of the EAP. When asked by Richards how she had emailed him during her suspension, Gates replied that she logged into her email account using her ID and password. When pressed further about how she gained access to the intranet, Gates replied that she used her fiancé's I-Pass card because hers was in her bag at work.*fn2 Although Gates initially claimed that her fiancé logged into the system from home before leaving for work, after which she then used her own password to access her email, Richards and Shane had records indicating that her fiancé was often already at work at the times his I-Pass card was used to access the system remotely. Gates then admitted she had in fact used her fiancé's I-Pass card to log into the system when he was not there.

In a letter dated June 5, 2002, Caterpillar notified Gates that based on its belief that Gates had continued to misuse company property and was dishonest about how she accessed the internal email system during her suspension, Gates was terminated. In May 2004, Gates brought an ...


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