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Petts v. Rockledge Furniture LLC

July 21, 2008


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin. No. 06 C 553-John C. Shabaz, Judge.

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


Before RIPPLE, SYKES, and TINDER, Circuit Judges.

Jeanette Petts sued her former employer, Rockledge Furniture LLC, a Division of Ashley Furniture Industries, Inc., alleging that it terminated her employment as assistant store manager because of her sex in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. The district court granted Rockledge's motion for summary judgment, concluding that Ms. Petts produced insufficient evidence of sex discrimination in the summary judgment process under either the direct or indirect methods of proving discrimination to justify a trial. Ms. Petts appeals, asserting that a trial should have resulted under either method of analyzing her claim.

It is not uncommon in employment discrimination cases that most, if not all, of the facts are not in dispute. But rather, the contest revolves around whether the reasonable inferences that can be drawn from those facts are sufficient to support a claim of discrimination. This case fits that pattern. For the reasons which follow a description of the relevant facts regarding Ms. Petts's tenure at Rockledge, we conclude that she has insufficient evidence of sex discrimination under both the direct and indirect methods and therefore affirm the district court's judgment.

I. Background

Rockledge, a high volume retailer, owned and operated three Ashley Furniture HomeStores in Franklin, Madison, and Pewaukee, Wisconsin. The Madison store was the smallest in size and sales volume; the Franklin store was the largest. In early 2003, Rockledge hired Brett Johnson, a male, to be store manager of the Madison store. That store was to have a store manager and two assistant managers, along with two other positions with managerial responsibilities, namely, a visual manager and an office manager. Rockledge hired Mary Tortorice, a female, and Terry Kean, a male, as assistant managers and two females for the other positions with managerial responsibilities at the Madison store. Ms. Petts attended an Ashley job fair in September 2003 and Mr. Johnson hired her on the spot for a sales position.

In July 2004, Mr. Johnson was promoted to general manager of Rockledge, with full responsibility for operations and hiring and firing authority over all Rockledge personnel. In late 2004, following Ms. Tortorice's transfer to the Pewaukee store as assistant manager, Mr. Johnson approved Ms. Petts's promotion to assistant manager of operations at the Madison store. At the time Scott Rorek, a male, was the assistant manager for sales at the store since Mr. Kean had been promoted to store manager.

In early 2005, Rockledge's upper management recognized the need to reduce operating costs and improve profitability. The Madison store was not profitable in 2004. By mid-March, Mr. Johnson had proposed a multi-faceted plan to reduce costs. The plan included reducing management staff at the Madison store by eliminating an assistant manager position and utilizing non-management sales leads or key carriers, that is, employees who could simply open and close a store without possessing true managerial responsibilities. Under the plan, Rockledge would test the new management model in Madison and, depending on the results, implement the model in other lower sales volume stores. As a result of this plan, either Ms. Petts or Mr. Rorek would lose her or his position.

Mr. Johnson testified that he decided to eliminate Ms. Petts's position because Mr. Rorek had marginally greater seniority in a management position at Rockledge and had over ten years of relative management experience with "big box" retailers such as American and Best Buy, while Ms. Petts's only prior retail management experience was in a sandwich shop franchise. Mr. Johnson stated that tenure was a factor in his decision, but relative experience was the principal factor. He sought input from the Madison Store Manager Kean who suggested that Ms. Petts be terminated because she was one of the newest team members and perhaps the easiest to replace by having a customer service lead or other employee assume some of her responsibilities. Mr. Johnson also consulted with Rob VanCraenenbroeck, Rockledge's Director of Human Resources, in making his decision to terminate Ms. Petts's position.

On April 5, 2005, Mr. Johnson visited the Madison store and along with Mr. Kean met with Ms. Petts. They advised her that her assistant manager position was being eliminated based on the business trend at the store. They offered her three alternative positions at the Pewaukee store, including a sales position, and indicated she would be eligible to re-apply for a management position. Ms. Petts was given time to consider the offer. On April 9, she declined the offer, advising Mr. Johnson that the positions were not financially suitable and would require a longer commute. She asked Mr. Johnson to contact her if any assistant manager positions became available. He told her that he would consider her for such a position and would notify her if any became available.

Mr. Johnson also terminated Ms. Tortorice from her position as assistant manager at the Pewaukee store on April 5, albeit for what he asserted were performance reasons. He detailed the performance issues in a written notice, which included Ms. Tortorice's admitted loss of a $1,083.11 customer check, inconsistent and missing funding reports, lack of staff development and training, and other customer service complaints about her. Although these occurrences were not contested by Ms. Petts in the summary judgment process, she did point out that Mr. Johnson erred in describing the reports.

Mr. Johnson explained in his deposition that he mistakenly referred to the funding reports for which Ms. Tortorice had no responsibility and that he meant to refer to the daily sales and cash reports, which had not been completed on several occasions in March 2005. Ms. Tortorice accepted responsibility for the deficiencies in these reports. Her assistant manager position was eliminated in connection with her termination. Mr. Johnson offered to provide Ms. Tortorice with a reference because he liked her and thought she would do well in a slower-paced, lower-volume retail environment. He claims that he consulted with Mr. VanCraenenbroeck the day he terminated Ms. Tortorice but was contradicted on that point. Mr. VanCraenenbroeck testified that he was not aware of Ms. Tortorice's termination until after she had been fired.

From the time of Ms. Petts's termination until Mr. Johnson's departure from Rockledge in October 2005, the Madison store operated with a two manager/one sales lead structure. Ms. Petts's position was not filled. Instead, Wendy Bohner, a customer service employee, and Cindy Gomez-Trujillo, a customer service lead, both females, took over Ms. Petts's former duties. Rockledge did not fill Ms. Tortorice's assistant manager position in the Pewaukee store either. No assistant ...

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