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Hnizdor v. Pyramid Mouldings

April 30, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Magistrate Judge Geraldine Soat Brown


Plaintiff Celia Hnizdor brought this action against defendant Pyramid Mouldings, Inc. ("Pyramid") alleging two counts of age discrimination pursuant to the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), 29 U.S.C. § 621. (Compl. ¶¶ 1-12.) [Dkt 1.] Pyramid has moved for summary judgment pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 56 on several grounds, specifically, that Hnizdor cannot establish age discrimination under either the direct or indirect methods of proof, and that Hnizdor is judicially estopped or barred from recovering under the complaint based on her settlement of a prior legal malpractice suit. [Dkt 50.]

The parties have consented to the exercise of jurisdiction by a magistrate judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). [Dkt 25.] For the reasons set out below, Pyramid's motion is granted.


A. Hnizdor's Employment with Pyramid

Pyramid is a manufacturer of custom metal mouldings and parts for appliances and office furniture, and has manufacturing facilities in Chicago, Illinois, Georgia, and Florida. (Pl.'s LR Resp. ¶ 2; Def.'s LR Ex. 12, Illinois Dept. of Human Rights Rpt. at 1.) Hnizdor was employed at Pyramid's Chicago facility for nearly 33 years, from June 1966 until March 1999. (Pl.'s LR Resp. ¶¶ 1, 5.)

During her employment at Pyramid, Hnizdor served in several different positions. From 1966 to 1976, Hnizdor worked as a wrapper; from 1976 to 1981 she worked as a packer/tuber; from 1981 to 1996 she worked as a timekeeper; and, finally, from 1996 to 1999 she worked as a clerk. (Pl.'s LR Resp. ¶ 20; Def.'s LR Resp. ¶ 34; Def.'s LR Ex. 4, Dep. of Celia Hnizdor at 18.) Hnizdor's duties in her last position as a clerk included monitoring the switchboard, processing the incoming and outgoing mail, stamping signatures on checks, mailing out checks, totaling the amount of time spent by each manufacturing employee on a job, and entering that time data into Pyramid's system. (Pl.'s LR Resp. ¶ 25.)

Over the years, Pyramid provided Hnizdor with training in order for her to acquire skills which allowed her to remain employed. (Pl.'s LR Resp. ¶ 21.) Hnizdor's training included learning to insert labor ticket information into Pyramid's computer system for payroll purposes, and typing which she learned in a class at Wright Junior College for which Pyramid paid. (Pl.'s LR Resp. ¶¶ 22, 23, 24.)

B. Pyramid's Restructuring

In the mid-1990s, Pyramid decided to consolidate its accounting, sales, engineering and information technology systems functions by transferring those functions in the Chicago and Georgia facilities to the Florida facility. (Pl.'s LR Resp. ¶ 7.) Manufacturing operations in those facilities remained intact. (Id. ¶ 17.) Otto Boyett, Pyramid's President, testified that he made the decision to restructure because he wanted to have those functions located near him in Florida in order to manage them better. (Id. ¶¶ 3, 8.) Pyramid's Vice President of Accounting was also retiring at that time. (Def.'s LR Ex. 7, Dep. of Thomas Bartel at 34; id. Ex. 8, Dep. of Otto Stephen Boyett at 38-39; id. Ex. 9, Dep. of Ronald Martin at 15-16.) An Accounting Manager, Dianne Weatherford, was hired for the Florida location, and she, in turn, hired accounts payable and accounts receivable clerks for the Florida location. (Pl.'s LR Resp. ¶ 11.) The transition of the accounting function occurred between 1998 and 1999. (Id. ¶ 12.)

As a result of the restructuring, employees in the accounting and information technology systems groups at the Chicago facility lost their jobs. (Pl.'s LR Resp. ¶ 13.) Clerical positions supporting the accounting group were also eliminated. (Def.'s LR Ex. 5, Dep. of Erwin Walz at 31; Bartel Dep. at 119.) Specifically, nine clerical or technical office employees lost their positions, either because of the restructuring or for economic reasons. (Def.'s LR Ex. 6, Cont'd. Dep. of Erwin Walz at 30.)*fn2 Mr. Boyett was aware that his decision to restructure would result in the loss of employment for various personnel. (Boyett Dep. at 27-28.)

Only three employees in the affected groups maintained their positions at the Chicago location: Erv Walz, the Vice President of Human Resources; Tom Bartel, the Employee Relations Manager; and one information technology employee. (Pl.'s LR Resp. ¶¶ 3, 17; Bartel Dep. at 12, 156.) Only one employee, the Director of Information Technology Systems, was transferred from the Chicago facility to the Florida facility. (Pl.'s LR Resp. ¶ 15.) No other employees transferred to the Florida facility. (Id.) According to Mr. Bartel, the option of relocation was not offered to clerical employees due to "cost effectiveness" reasons because it was "easier to hire somebody directly there, than transferring somebody and [having to pay] relocation expenses and everything else." (Bartel Dep. at 67-68.) Ron Martin, Pyramid's Vice President of Manufacturing, added that employees in clerical positions did not normally transfer due to "the cost associated of moving people." (Martin Dep. at 30.)

Mr. Boyett testified that Pyramid had a philosophy of trying to retain long-term employees. (Pl.'s LR Resp. ¶ 18.) At the time of the restructure, 82% of the employees at the Chicago location were over age 40. (Id. ¶ 19.)

C. The Termination of Hnizdor's Employment

During the restructuring, on March 12, 1999, Hnizdor was asked to meet with Mr. Walz.

(Pl.'s LR Resp. ¶ 26.) Mr. Walz told Hnizdor during the meeting that she would be discharged from her employment, effective April 1, 1999, if she did not voluntarily retire. (Pl.'s LR Resp. ¶ 28.) Also during the meeting, Mr. Walz asked Hnizdor how old she was, and when she responded that she was 67, he suggested that it might be time for her to retire. (Id. ¶ 30; Hnizdor Dep. at 42-43, 50-51.) Mr. Walz informed Hnizdor that while she had done a good job, she had been there for quite a long time. (Pl.'s LR Stmt. ¶ 5; Hnizdor Dep. at 43.) When Hnizdor stated that she did not want to retire, felt good, and liked to work, Mr. Walz told her that her employment would have to be terminated. (Pl.'s LR Resp. ¶ 29; Hnizdor Dep. at 42-43.)*fn3 Hnizdor had no further interactions with Mr. Walz after that time. (Pl.'s LR Resp. ¶ 33.) Mr. Walz was 56 years old at the time of the meeting. (Pl.'s LR Resp. ¶ 27.)

Hnizdor's counsel acknowledged at the argument on the present motion that there is no evidence in the record of Mr. Walz or anyone else in Pyramid's management making ...

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