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Cole v. Illinois Tool Works, Inc.

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division

February 14, 2013

Dolores COLE, Plaintiff,

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Richard J. Gonzalez, Chicago-Kent College of Law, Chicago, IL, for Plaintiff.

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John Lawrence Hayes, Ogletree Deakins Nash Smoak & Stewart, Chicago, IL, for Defendant.


SHEILA FINNEGAN, United States Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff Dolores Cole has filed suit alleging that Defendant Paslode, a division of Illinois Tool Works, Inc., terminated her employment because of her age in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (" ADEA" ), 29 U.S.C. § 621 et seq. Plaintiff also claims that Defendant retaliated against her for making complaints of age and race discrimination under the ADEA and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (" Title VII" ), 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. The parties have consented to the jurisdiction of the United States Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), and Defendant now moves for summary judgment on all of Plaintiff's claims. For the reasons set forth here, the motion is granted in part and denied in part.


Paslode is a manufacturer of cordless and pneumatic nailers, staplers, and fasteners used by professional contractors. (Doc. 26 ¶ 2). From 1990 until November 2007, Plaintiff (born May 14, 1955) worked as a salaried Customer Service Manager for Paslode's Service & Parts business. In that position, she supervised anywhere from one part-time to three full-time customer service representatives, and performed a variety of duties including answering phones, acting as a customer service representative, placing orders, writing reports, visiting customers and vendors, interfacing with manufacturers, and working on budgets. ( Id. ¶ 5; Doc. 34 ¶ 5; Doc. 50 ¶ 2; Doc. 35-8). There is no dispute that Plaintiff generally performed her duties satisfactorily. (Doc. 34 ¶ 7; Doc. 50 ¶ 3).

Throughout most of her employment, Plaintiff reported to Parts Manager Wilfred Hildebrandt (born July 28, 1950). (Doc. 50 ¶ 4). At some point in 2007, however, she started reporting to Chris Mettler, Paslode's manager of product and customer services. Defendant maintains this supervisory change occurred in January 2007 (Mettler Aff., Doc. 27, Ex. A, ¶ 2; Doc. 26 ¶ 6; Doc. 50 ¶ 4); Plaintiff insists it was " mid-2007." (Doc. 34 ¶ 6; 2/26/07 Organizational Chart, Doc. 38; 7/30/07 Organizational Chart, Doc. 40; 6/5/2007 Salary Data Sheet, Doc. 61). In any event, there is no dispute that Mettler reported to Distribution Manager Toni Stark (born November 27, 1966). (Doc. 34 ¶ 6; Stark Dep., Doc. 29, at 5).

A. The Reduction in Force

Defendant claims that business started to decline in late 2006 " as part of a trend that would become a national economic recession." (Doc. 26 ¶ 8). In January 2007, Mark Boutelle, Group President of Illinois Tool Works (" ITW" ), determined that Paslode needed to trim its workforce and cut costs to maintain profitability. He thus spoke with Mettler about " what could be eliminated and streamlined to allow the business to grow and continue to earn profits." ( Id. ¶ 11; Mettler Aff. ¶ 6; Boutelle Aff., Doc. 27, Ex. B, ¶ 8). That summer, at the request of Boutelle and Stark, Mettler developed a restructuring plan that called for, among other things,

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the elimination of Plaintiff's position. (Doc. 26 ¶¶ 12, 13). According to Mettler, the company did not need a separate customer service manager to oversee just two customer service representatives (Linda Mede and Lela Huff-Chanath (born September 11, 1956)). ( Id. ¶ 14; Mettler Aff. ¶ 7; Doc. 34 ¶ 5; Doc. 34, Add'l Facts, ¶ 19). Mettler discussed the plan with Boutelle and Stark, and by August 2007 the reduction in force (" RIF" ) was underway. (Doc. 26 ¶¶ 15, 16). Specifically, in August and September 2007, Paslode circulated documents among certain managers showing the company's intent to eliminate Plaintiff's job. ( Id. ¶ 16; 8/2/07 Business Restructure Overview, Doc. 30, Ex. I; Holley Dep., Doc. 30, Ex. E, at 122-24, 138-39).

Plaintiff denies that Paslode experienced any economic decline, noting Stark's deposition testimony that ITW was " doing okay" in late 2007, and that Paslode did not implement the restructuring due to budgetary issues or to save salary or benefit costs. (Stark Dep., Doc. 44, at 12-13). Plaintiff also disputes that Paslode actually thought her position was unnecessary or planned to eliminate it. She notes, for example, that while Paslode was working on the RIF, it was simultaneously considering creating a new National Customer Service Manager position and hiring two additional customer service representatives. (Doc. 51-1; Doc. 26 ¶ 33; Doc. 50 ¶ 27). In July and August 2007, Plaintiff exchanged email messages with Ollie Brewer, ITW's Human Resources Manager at the time, expressing interest in the position. (Doc. 30, Ex. M). Stark, however, declined to interview her, believing that she did not possess the requisite qualifications. (Doc. 34 ¶¶ 31, 34, 35; Doc. 30, Ex. N; Doc. 50 ¶¶ 28, 31). Defendant admits these facts but stresses that the idea to create a new position was put " on hold" in October 2007, and that the company ultimately abandoned the plan. (Doc. 34 ¶ 36; Doc. 30, Ex. M).

B. Plaintiff's Discharge

On October 1, 2007, Donna Holley, Paslode's Human Resources Director, emailed Michael Hamblen, ITW's Vice-President of Employee Relations, a list of positions and employees that would be affected by the restructuring, including Plaintiff's Customer Service Manager position. (Doc. 26 ¶ 17). According to Defendant, Stark and Boutelle ultimately approved the restructuring plan recommended by Mettler and eliminated Plaintiff's position as well as two others from Paslode's Service & Parts business.[2] ( Id. ). Mettler notified Plaintiff of this decision on November 7, 2007. ( Id. ¶¶ 19, 20; Cole Dep., Doc. 28, at 8). At that time, Plaintiff had worked for Paslode for some 17 years and her salary had steadily increased to the point where it was 111 ¶ of the company's designated " midpoint" for her position. (Doc. 50 ¶¶ 2, 7; Holley Dep., Doc. 45, at 36-37). She was also participating in a defined benefit plan that was 100% funded by Paslode. (Doc. 50 ¶ 8; Holley Dep., Doc. 45, at 154).

Plaintiff of course believes that she should not have been selected for termination. More importantly, she believes that contrary to Defendant's assertion, it was Stark, and not Mettler, who made the decision to discharge her. (Doc. 25, at 9; Doc. 34, Add'l Facts ¶¶ 10, 11). This distinction is significant, Plaintiff posits, because she has evidence that Stark did not like her and thought she was overpaid. Specifically, Plaintiff testified at her deposition that Hildebrandt told her " [o]n numerous occasions" that Stark had said she thought Plaintiff was " overcompensated compared to the other customer service

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managers within the organization." (Cole Dep., Ex. 43, at 32-33). Hildebrandt further reported that Stark did not like Plaintiff, and that he had to struggle to get Plaintiff a merit increase in 2007 because Stark wanted him to rate her " more harshly" than he believed was appropriate. ( Id. at 34, at 49-50; Doc. 34, Add'l Facts ¶¶ 5, 6, 13; Hildebrandt Aff., Doc. 35-12, ¶ 5). Brewer similarly recalls Stark discussing with him " [o]n several occasions" her concern about Plaintiff's " relatively high salary." (Brewer Aff. ¶ 5).

Stark denies that she complained about Plaintiff's salary, and has no recollection of talking with Hildebrandt about Plaintiff's years of service with the company. (Stark Dep., Doc. 29, Ex. D, at 77, 79). She also insists that she never told Hildebrandt she dislikes Plaintiff or made any disparaging remarks about her. ( Id. at 92). As for the 2007 review, Stark testified that her standard practice is to ask managers to explain how they have rated an employee if it is not clear from the statements in the review. (Stark Dep., Doc. 49-2, Ex. 6, at 93; Doc. 50 ¶ 13). In his affidavit, however, Hildebrandt maintains that Stark went much further, insisting that he re-write certain portions of his review " to reflect dissatisfaction with job performance," which resulted in Plaintiff receiving a smaller raise. (Hildebrandt Aff., Doc. 35-12, ¶ 5; Doc. 34, Add'l Facts, ¶ 13).

C. Paslode's Alleged Search for a New Customer Service Manager

After Plaintiff's termination, Mettler personally assumed some of her job duties and had the two customer service representatives report directly to him for some period of time. (Doc. 26 ¶¶ 28, 29). According to Plaintiff, however, Mettler had other plans for the department. Immediately after she was discharged, Mettler approached Ollie Brewer seeking approval to post an opening for a customer service supervisory position. Brewer says he told Mettler this was not feasible because Plaintiff " could have capably performed such a position." When Brewer met with both Mettler and Holley approximately one week later, however, " they decided to post a position for a new customer service position with the intent that the new hire would later be promoted to a supervisory position." According to Brewer, " [a]n offer was extended to a young Caucasian male whose name I don't recall, although that individual declined the offer." (Brewer Aff., Doc. 35-13, ¶ 6; Doc. 34 ¶ 11; Doc. 34, Add'l Facts, ¶ 20).

Defendant denies this ever happened and claims that Brewer, who was fired from the company in 2009 and filed his own discrimination charges, could not provide even the barest supporting details at his deposition. (Doc. 50 ¶¶ 20, 25; Brewer Aff., Doc. 35-13, ¶ 8). For example, Brewer could not recall the title of the position or the name of the " young guy" " from Wisconsin" who allegedly received the offer. (Brewer Dep., Doc. 49-1, at 172, 177, 183). Nor could he remember how long after Plaintiff's termination Mettler sought ...

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