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Tina L. Russo v. Midland Paper Company

October 21, 2011

TINA L. RUSSO, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MIDLAND PAPER COMPANY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Edmond E. Chang

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

In October 2007, Tina Russo, an Accounts Receivable Supervisor at Midland Paper Company, told her supervisor that she was pregnant. R. 18 ¶ 26.*fn1 Russo went on pregnancy leave on January 1, 2008 and gave birth to her son in April 2008. Id. ¶¶ 22-25. Later that month, she learned that her employment with Midland was terminated. Id. ¶ 50. Russo filed this lawsuit, alleging that the termination constituted discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., as amended by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. R. 1. Midland has moved for summary judgment. R. 17. For the reasons discussed below, the Court grants Midland's motion for summary judgment because Russo has not presented sufficient evidence to raise a genuine issue on whether the relevant Midland decision-makers discriminated against her.

I.

Because this opinion address Midland's summary judgment motion, the Court states the facts in the light most favorable to Russo (as the non-movant) and makes reasonable inferences in her favor. Tina Russo was hired by Midland Paper Company in February 2000 as a credit and collection representative. R. 18 ¶ 5. In 2005, she was promoted to the Accounts Receivable Supervisor position. Id. ¶ 6. Russo's job duties as an Accounts Receivable Supervisor included overseeing two major accounts, serving as the Midland Bank Credit bank liaison, and supervising two credit clerks. Id. ¶ 7. Her supervisory duties were not a large part of her overall responsibilities; they took up just 5-10% of her time. R. 23 ¶ 25.

As a Midland employee, Russo had a mixed performance record. Russo's performance review from August 2005-06 identified several areas for improvement, and the review included some critical remarks regarding her work product, attitude, and responsiveness to emails. R. 18 ¶ 9. Her performance review from August 2006-07 -- the last one she received before being fired -- included three recommendations for areas of improvement. Id. ¶ 10. Throughout 2007, Russo also received reprimands and warnings based on her "not acceptable attitude" and improper adjustments of accounts. Id. ¶¶ 11-13. One of her Employee Warning Reports stated that "further occurrences may result in termination." Id. ¶ 14.

Despite receiving some criticism for her work performance, Russo received two annual merit-based pay increases during the same time period. Her August 2005-06 review included positive comments and she received a pay raise shortly afterwards. R. 23 ¶ 15. Her August 2006-07 review the next year was also followed by a pay raise. Id.

¶ 16. Around the time she received this second raise, Russo informed Midland's Human Resources Department that she was pregnant. Id. ¶ 17. This was her third pregnancy while working at Midland.*fn2 R. 18 ¶¶ 16-25. Russo then told Mari Fontana -- her direct supervisor -- that she was pregnant. Id. ¶ 26. According to Russo, Fontana replied, "are you f--ing kidding me?" R. 23 ¶ 17. Fontana admits that she reacted with surprise but denies making this statement or using an expletive. R. 18 ¶ 26. Russo, on the other hand, did not think that Fontana seemed shocked or surprised. R. 23 ¶ 17. After this exchange, Russo felt that Fontana began to act "cold" and "distant." Id.¶ 18.

Russo also noticed that other Midland employees began to act cold towards her. During a business trip to Minnesota in November 2007, Russo told two Midland employees, John Johnson (who was the General Manager of Midland's Minneapolis Division) and Judy Aleksiak (who was Vice President of Operations), that she was pregnant. Id. ¶ 19. The two employees were not in Russo's supervisory chain. R. 18, Exh. 16 ¶ 3. (As explained below, neither Johnson nor Aleksiak were actually involved in the decision to fire Russo.) According to Russo, Johnson responded by asking, "What are we going to do with you on leave?" and Aleksiak responded by asking, "Don't you know what causes this?" R. 23 ¶ 19. After returning from the trip, Russo told Ralph DeLetto -- Midland's Vice President and CFO -- that she could no longer travel to Minnesota. Id. ¶ 20. From that point on, Russo felt that her relationship with DeLetto deteriorated because he also became cold and distant. R. 18, Exh. 1 at 112.

On December 27, 2007, Russo told Human Resources Representative Nikki Facchini that she would need additional leave due to medical complications with the pregnancy. R. 23 ¶ 21. Russo told Facchini that she would begin medical leave on January 1. Id. Facchini responded by telling Russo that she was required to return to work eight weeks after the birth of her child and that if she did not, her job would be in jeopardy.*fn3 Id. ¶ 23.

On January 1, 2008, Russo began her medical leave. R. 18 ¶ 22. While out on leave, Russo had two interactions with Midland employees. In February 2008, Russo attended a Midland Credit Department dinner, where she felt like she was treated with "cold indifference and disdain." R. 23 ¶ 29. On another occasion, Russo had trouble connecting to her work e-mail so she contacted Fontana for help. Id. ¶ 30. According to Russo, Fontana was unhelpful and responded by simply saying "oh really." Id.

While Russo was out on leave, Fontana and Midland CFO DeLetto discussed how to cope with Russo's absence. R. 18 ¶ 34. They agreed that Nicholas Rog -- a Credit Analyst who was on probationary status -- would take over Russo's two major accounts. Id.; R. 23 ¶ 26. Fontana would shoulder Russo's supervisory responsibilities. R. 18¶

36. Richard Fey, another Midland employee, would take over Russo's bank liaison role and another account. Id. Cindy Patrick, one of Russo's peers in the department, would also take over an account. Id.

Soon, Fontana realized that the Credit Department staff was able to absorb all of Russo's job responsibilities with little trouble. Id. ¶ 47. Fontana also noted that the recession was seriously impacting Midland's business performance. Id. These two factors led her to believe that the Accounts Receivable Supervisor position was redundant and unnecessary. Id. Fontana recommended that DeLetto (the company's CFO) fire Russo. Id. ¶ 48. DeLetto approved, and on April 22, 2008, Midland fired Russo.*fn4 Id. ¶ 49.

After finishing the required EEOC process, Russo filed a complaint alleging violations of Title VII and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. R. 1. Midland has moved for summary judgment, R.16, and the motion is now fully briefed.

II.

Summary judgment must be granted when "the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). A genuine issue of material fact exists if "the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). In determining summary judgment motions, "facts must be viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party only if there is a 'genuine' dispute as to those facts." Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380 (2007). The party seeking summary judgment has the burden of establishing the lack of any genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). After "a properly ...


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