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Phillip Hall v. Sterling Park District

May 4, 2011

PHILLIP HALL,
PLAINTIFF,
v.
STERLING PARK DISTRICT, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Magistrate Judge P. Michael Mahoney

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

I. INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff, Phillip Hall, filed two different lawsuits against Defendant, Sterling Park District, that were consolidated by the court. The first suit, initiated on June 24, 2008, contains four counts alleging violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act, 29 USC § 207, the Illinois Minimum Wage Law, 820 ILCS § 105/3-4, and the Illinois Wage Payment Collection Act, 802 ILCS § 115/2, and seeks back pay for overtime worked and compensation for unused vacation time. Plaintiff subsequently filed a two-count complaint on July 7, 2009 that seeks damages and equitable relief to redress alleged violations of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, 29 U.S.C. § 621 et seq. ("ADEA"). The court consolidated the cases in their entirety on October 7, 2009. Defendant has now filed a motion for summary judgment as to all counts in both of Plaintiff's suits.

II. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff began his employment at the Sterling Park District ("the Park District") on or around May 1, 1994 when he was hired as the Director of Golf Operations at the Emerald Hill Golf and Learning Center. The Park District had recently acquired Emerald Hill and hired Plaintiff as its first Director. He was 41 years old when he started the job. He continued to work at full-time capacity until he was terminated on or about April 30, 2006, at 53 years old.

The Park District is governed by a publicly elected five-member Board of Commissioners ("the Board"). The operations of the Park District are assigned to an Executive Director, a position filled by Larry Schuldt ("Schuldt") during the entire period of Plaintiff's employment. Under the Executive Director are three director-level department heads, including the Director of Golf Operations, the Director of Parks and Planning, and the Director of Recreation. As the Director of Golf Operations, Plaintiff's duties included oversight of the 18-hole Emerald Hill Golf Course and its affiliated clubhouse, golf shop, restaurant, and banquet facilities. Plaintiff had a staff that included up to four full-time employees and more than 30 total employees during the peak season.

Plaintiff entered into an initial employment agreement (hereinafter referred to as Plaintiff's "contract") beginning on May 1, 1994 and running for a period of three years. The contract contained an amendment stating that it would automatically renew for subsequent three year terms unless either party notifies the other within 90 days of the end of the stated term that the contract would not be renewed. Plaintiff's contract automatically renewed on three occasions, allowing him to work continuously under contract through April 30, 2006.

Plaintiff's initial job was to manage the Park District's efforts to improve the Emerald Hill Golf Course, which was in extremely poor condition. In addition to the maintenance of the golf course grounds, Plaintiff had the duties of managing the clubhouse and the food and beverage operations. Plaintiff described his primary duty as course maintenance, which required manual labor. He also had the responsibility for making recommendations about hiring, disciplinary, and salary decisions as to part-time employees at Emerald Hill. Plaintiff managed a budget of over $600,000 and made recommendations about the yearly budget to Schuldt and the Board. As one of three department heads within the Park District, Plaintiff would attend various management-related meetings and monthly Board Meetings.

Plaintiff described working over 40 hours per week during the peak season each year, which runs from May and October, including working about three weekends per month. Plaintiff rarely worked a full 40 hour week during the non-peak season, although he did occasionally work overtime during this season as well. While at work, Plaintiff estimates that between 75% and 80% of his time was spent performing manual labor and other non-management duties. Of the 20% to 25% of the time he spent performing "management work," he described much of this work as routine data entry or paperwork. Plaintiff requested additional funds for labor on numerous occasions, but because his requests were denied, he had to assume many of the tasks required to maintain the appearance and condition of the golf course.

Beginning in 2005, Schuldt began evaluating the operations at Emerald Hill with an eye toward streamlining and restructuring operations. As a part of the evaluation, Schuldt asked Plaintiff to make cost-saving recommendations. Plaintiff provided Schuldt two documents analyzing recommendations for restructuring the full-time positions of Food and Beverage Manager and Golf Professional. In August, 2005, Plaintiff alleges that Schuldt unilaterally chose to terminate the Food and Beverage Manager against Plaintiff's recommendation. With six weeks remaining in the golf season, Schuldt then ordered Plaintiff to terminate the Golf Professional. A younger worker in his twenties, who was under the supervision of Plaintiff, was assigned the duties of the vacated positions.

Then, in November, 2005, Schuldt apparently decided not to renew Plaintiff's employment agreement for an additional three year term. There was uncertainty about the direction the Park District was going to take with regard to Emerald Hill. Revenues were declining and rounds of golf were down. Schuldt described concerns about Plaintiff's job performance, and specifically believed Plaintiff relied too heavily on poorly performing subordinates in the areas of food and beverage management and golf operations. Schuldt also discovered in 2005 that $12,000 in inventory was missing from the clubhouse, and had concerns about Plaintiff's "lackadaisical" response. Finally, Schuldt believed that Plaintiff had not accomplished four of the eight goals he was expected to complete in 2005. Schuldt believed that taking away the security of a contract would motivate Plaintiff. Schuldt informed Plaintiff of this decision during his annual performance evaluation on November 18, 2005, at which time he informed Plaintiff that he would be retained as an at-will employee and would receive a $1,000 a year (approximately 1%) raise. Other workers received 3% raises, as Plaintiff had received in past years, but Plaintiff was informed that he received 1% based on Schuldt's view that he performed well in only one of the three areas of his job.

Plaintiff disputes that the purpose of the November 18, 2005 meeting was to conduct his annual performance evaluation, as he was not provided with a written evaluation on standardized forms, as had been the policy and practice of the District. Plaintiff also disputes Schuldt's given reasons for the non-renewal of his contract. Namely, Plaintiff stated that Schuldt was aware of Plaintiff's reliance on subordinates based on the amount of time he needed to spend on the physical maintenance of the golf course. Plaintiff points out that despite Schuldt's decision to terminate two full-time staff members, the clubhouse restaurant and the golf shop were both running smoothly and profitably and the course was "in the best shape ever." Plaintiff believes he completed six of his eight listed goals for 2005, and the two that were incomplete had been assigned to the previously terminated Golf Professional. As to the $12,000 in missing inventory, Plaintiff again disputes the characterization that his response was lackadaisical, and describes how he was not allowed to participate in the investigation. In short, Plaintiff disputed the content of his evaluation and came to believe that the November 18, 2005 meeting signaled the beginning of the end of his employment with the Park District.

On December 19, 2005, Plaintiff sought a meeting with the Board to discuss his concerns, and was instead instructed to file a written grievance. Plaintiff filed a written grievance on December 23, 2005, indicating his objections to his evaluation and decreased raise. On January 10, 2006, a member of the Board sent Plaintiff a letter denying his grievance, and affirming the decisions to give him a $1,000 raise and to eliminate his contract. At a January 16, 2006 executive meeting, the Board decided to eliminate the Director of Golf Operations and Assistant Golf Course Superintendent positions and to create the Golf Course Superintendent and Golf Operations Manager positions. This resulted in the elimination of Plaintiff's job, as well as the job of Aaron Heaton ("Heaton"), a 23-year-old employee.

Plaintiff was informed of the Board's decision in a letter from Schuldt on January 31, 2006. He was offered the opportunity to apply for the newly-created Golf Course Superintendent job. Plaintiff did apply for the position, but was not granted an interview. Heaton was ultimately selected to fill the position without having submitted an application or being interviewed. Another 22-year-old employee, C.J. Wade ("Wade") was chosen for the position of Golf Operations Manager. Plaintiff was officially terminated in a letter dated March 23, 2006. The termination letter alluded to Plaintiff's performance, attitude, and inability to maintain respectful communications with his supervisor.

III. DISCUSSION

A. Statement of the Law

A court may only grant summary judgment "if the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); see also Hemsworth v. Quotesmith.com, Inc., 476 F.3d 487, 489--90 (7th Cir. 2007). In evaluating such a motion, the court's function is not to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter, but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial. Id. at 490. The court must draw all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion. Id. If the moving party bears the burden of persuasion at trial, that party must support its motion with credible evidence to show that, even in the absence of an adequate response by the non-movant, it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Saab Cars USA, Inc. v. United States, 434 F.3d 1359, 1368 (Fed. Cir. 2006); Arnett v. Myers, 281 F.3d 552, 562 (6th Cir. 2002); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 331 (1986) (Brennan, J., dissenting) (The moving party "must support its motion with credible evidence . . . that would entitle it to a directed verdict if not controverted at trial."). Moreover, a party who bears the burden of proof on a particular issue may not rest on its pleadings, but must affirmatively demonstrate that there is a genuine issue of material fact by identifying with reasonable particularity the evidence upon which the party relies. Hemsworth, 476 F.3d at 489--90.

B. Fair Labor Standards Act Claims

Plaintiff claims he was mis-categorized as an exempt employee for the purposes of the Fair Labor Standards Act, 29 U.S.C. § 207, et seq. ("FLSA"). He claims he primarily performed work that was non-exempt in nature, and is owed overtime compensation pursuant to the FLSA for all hours in excess of forty hours per week.

The FLSA exempts employees employed in a bona fide executive, administrative, or professional capacity from the overtime and minimum wage requirements contained in the law. Federal regulations define an executive employee to be an employee who is:

(1) Compensated on a salary basis at a rate of not less than $455 per week (or $380 per week, if employed in American Samoa by employers other than the Federal Government), exclusive of board, lodging or other facilities;

(2) Whose primary duty is management of the enterprise in which the employee is employed or of a customarily recognized department or subdivision thereof;

(3) Who customarily and regularly directs the work of two or more other employees; and

(4) Who has the authority to hire or fire other employees or whose suggestions and recommendations as to the hiring, firing, advancement, promotion or any other change of status ...


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