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Robert M. Lewis v. Mowhawk Esv

January 29, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Sue E. Myerscough, U.S. District Judge:

E-FILED Wednesday, 30 January, 2013 08:29:21 AM Clerk, U.S. District Court, ILCD


This matter is before the Court on Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment. (d/e 15). Defendant's Motion is GRANTED because no reasonable juror could infer Defendant's stated reason for terminating Plaintiff's employment was a pretext to age discrimination.


This Court considers facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party at the motion for summary judgment stage. Trentadue v. Redmon, 619 F.3d 648, 652 (7th Cir. 2010). Accordingly, the facts taken in the light most favorable to Plaintiff are as follows.

Defendant, Mohawk ESV, Inc.*fn1 , an Equal Employment Opportunity ("EEO") employer, operates a manufacturing and sales business that specializes in flooring products (carpet, tile, ceramic, wood floors, laminate, etc.). Defendant's EEO policy includes mechanisms for employees to report perceived unlawful discrimination and/or harassment.

Defendant also maintains an employment manual entitled "recruiting. hiring. and firing." Pl.'s Resp. Mot. Ex. 2(a), (b). The manual calls for fair notice and warnings about the specific consequences for improper employee conduct. However, the manual does not set forth specific steps for employment termination decisions, and employee dismissal remains possible if that represents the "best option." Pl.'s Resp. Mot. Ex. 2(a), (b) at 50. Plaintiff submitted this manual to the Court, but did not include a supporting affidavit to verify the manual's authenticity.

In 1985, Horizon, a company Defendant purchased in the summer of 1992, hired Plaintiff, Robert M. Lewis, born February 21, 1958. Plaintiff began his career as a Territory Manager. He remained a Territory Manager until 1999 when Defendant promoted him to District Manager. As District Manager, Plaintiff oversaw the Illinois District which included managing seven or eight Territory Managers.

In 2004, Defendant promoted Plaintiff to General Sales Manager for the Midwest Region. Gary Bengtson, Defendant's former Regional Vice President, and Gary Hollowell, Defendant's Vice President of Sales, selected Plaintiff for the General Sales Manager position.

Plaintiff undertook numerous responsibilities in his role as General Sales Manager. For example, he oversaw the regional sales department. This included approximately forty salespersons and several District Managers. He also reported sales-related activities to Bengtson.

In 2006, Plaintiff traveled to Defendant's regional headquarters in Chicago to aid with Defendant's restructuring. Plaintiff states that Bengtson made remarks during this period about replacing three older sales representatives in the Chicago Region. Specifically, Plaintiff states that Bengtson said "we need to get some new blood in here and we have some old guys that are not pulling their weight." Pl.'s Resp. Mot. at 17. The three representatives Bengtson was referring to were Lenny Parmezak, Larry Barker, and Randy Gill. Plaintiff acknowledges that the three workers Defendant released in the Chicago Region had performed poorly prior to their termination. Lewis Dep. at 106.

Plaintiff also states that Tim Simmons, Defendant's former General Sales Manager for the Minnesota area, made age-based discriminatory comments in Bengtson's and Plaintiff's presence during Defendant's restructuring period in 2006. Plaintiff states that Simmons said "we need to get rid of the old guy[, h]e's a trouble maker." Lewis Dep. at 107. Simmons comments alluded to replacing a long-term sales representative in Wisconsin, Jim Titzkowski. Plaintiff acknowledged in his deposition that Titzkowski became complacent as he aged. Lewis Dep. at 108.

Defendant eliminated all General Sales Manager positions in 2008. Bengtson informed Plaintiff about this decision and offered Plaintiff the choice of returning to a District Manager position or becoming a Regional Builder Manager. Plaintiff accepted the Regional Builder Manager position. Thereafter, Bengtson announced Plaintiff's decision to Defendant's sales group in Plaintiff's Region. Plaintiff began working as Regional Builder Manager on October 10, 2008.

Defendant alleges that the announcement of Plaintiff's decision to assume the Regional Builder Manager position facilitated negative feedback from employees Plaintiff had worked with or supervised during his time with Defendant. For example, Bengtson received unsolicited negative comments almost immediately from Lyle Larson (an employee for approximately fifty years with Defendant and Manager subordinate to Plaintiff), Ken Bailey (Kansas City District Manager), and Dan Housley (St. Louis District Manager).

This unsolicited feedback included information from District Manager Bailey about a comment made by Plaintiff to Bailey. Bailey stated that Plaintiff said something like "shut the fuck up and let me handle it" on a customer call. Def.'s Mot. at 6. Plaintiff admitted making the comment to District Manager Bailey. Lewis Dep. at 114.

Plaintiff also stated in his deposition that he had no reason to think that District Managers Housley or Bailey would lie about his conduct. Lewis Dep. at 79-80, 85. Moreover, Plaintiff only speculated that Larson's comments may have been influenced by office politics. Lewis Dep. at 76.

After receiving the unsolicited feedback from Larson, Bailey, and Housley, Bengtson contacted Scott Jaeger, Manager of National Accounts, and Tim Simmons, Defendant's former Minnesota area General Sales Manager. Jaeger and Simmons provided additional negative reports regarding Plaintiff's conduct.

Bengtson also talked to "[h]alf a dozen to a dozen" other employees about Plaintiff. Def.'s Mot. at 9. Defendant's description of the alleged negative feedback regarding Plaintiff generally indicated that Plaintiff lacked "interpersonal skills and [the] ability to deal with people, including subordinates and customers, was not very good, and that placing him in [the Regional Builder Manager] position would be a bad decision." Def.'s Mot. at 5.

Additionally, Defendant submitted an Affidavit from Bengtson that lists the types of comments Defendant's employees provided Bengtson regarding Plaintiff. The comments include that "[Plaintiff's] opinion of people is always negative; [and

h]e is not assertive on sales calls with customers-he does not take charge and is not in control in those situations." The Affidavit also states that employees expressed concern because "[Plaintiff] has an 'arrogant' air about him; [h]e is not respectful to his people and can be overbearing and negative[.]" Moreover, the Affidavit raises other issues such as "[Plaintiff's] people do not respect him;

[s]ubordinates are afraid to ask for help or advice because they fear being demeaned by him[;] he provides few compliments to his employees; [and h]e has no respect from customers for these same reasons-no real customer relations[,] in fact, several customers do not want him to call on them." Finally, the Affidavit states that "Lyle Larson . . .[, said] something to the effect of '[Plaintiff] is not assertive on sales calls. He does not take charge and is not in control.'" Def.'s Mot. Ex. D, Bengtson Aff. at ¶¶ 7-8.

Bengtson stated in his deposition that all of the negative comments about Plaintiff surprised him. Bengtson Dep. at 73. He thought that Plaintiff possessed capable managing skills and demanded good performance from subordinates. Bengtson also stated that Plaintiff maintained good sales figures. Bengtson Dep. at 20.

Bengtson, however, believed that the problems concerning Plaintiff's performance as conveyed by Defendant's other employees were too extreme to overlook. Bengtson decided to terminate Plaintiff immediately. Bengtson informed his superior, Gary Hollowell, and David Westerfield, Defendant's Senior Director of Human Resources, about the decision. Hollowell and Westerfield agreed with Bengtson.

Bengtson and Tom Shepardson, Defendant's Regional Vice-President on the hard-surface flooring side of the business, met with Plaintiff on October 16, 2008. Bengtson informed Plaintiff about the negative comments he had received. Bengtson then terminated Plaintiff's employment without prior notice to Plaintiff that his conduct and performance had fallen below Defendant's expectations. Plaintiff was 50 years old when Defendant ...

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