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Widmar v. Sun Chemical Corp.

United States District Court, Seventh Circuit

May 15, 2013

GEORGE WIDMAR, Plaintiff,
v.
SUN CHEMICAL CORPORATION, a Corporation; PETER KLUG, an Individual; CHARLES RAMSEY, an Individual; and THEODORE KNOTT, an Individual, Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

HARRY D. LEINENWEBER, District Judge.

Before the Court is Defendants Sun Chemical Corporation, Peter Klug, Charles Ramsey, and Theodore Knott's Motion for Summary for Judgment. For the reasons stated herein, the Court grants the motion.

I. BACKGROUND

In 1993, Rycoline Products, Inc. ("Rycoline") hired Plaintiff George Widmar (hereinafter, the "Plaintiff" or "Widmar") as a Plant Manager in Chicago. In 2004, Defendant Sun Chemical Corporation, ("Sun Chemical") acquired Rycoline. Both companies manufacture and sell pigments, inks, coatings, and other products for the printing industry.

Widmar was a Plant Manager for Rycoline and Sun Chemical until his termination in November 2009. While employed, Widmar was responsible for "[m]anaging all activities related to manufacturing at [the Chicago and Adelanto Rycoline plants]" and was involved in various attempts to remedy product quality issues. Pl.'s Resp. to Defs.' Rule 56.1(a)(3) Statement of Material Fact at 6-8. At all times relevant to this dispute, Widmar was more than 40 years old.

In late 2008, Keith Roberts ("Roberts") became responsible for Rycoline manufacturing, and became Widmar's supervisor. Around this time, Sun Chemical was receiving a number of customer complaints about the quality of its products. Due to the large number of complaints, Roberts sought the assistance of Widmar to work "proactively with sales, purchasing, and the lab to efficiently solve the 2009 product quality issues." Id. at 9-10.

Apparently, Widmar's efforts during this time were not up to par, as Widmar admits his work performance was criticized repeatedly in September and October 2009. Such criticisms continued in November 2009 after Widmar failed to quarantine a product contrary to instructions, and failed to mix some of the Rycoline products properly. Notably, there was an incident in November 2009 where Roberts learned that Widmar was directing employees to mix one of the Rycoline products by "agitating it with a forklift, " a procedure contrary to the product's mixing instructions. Defs.' Mem. in Supp. of Summ. J. at 9.

After learning this, Roberts grew upset and instructed Widmar to conduct a "complete review of all materials and [draft] a proper list of required procedures... for each [product]." Defs.' Ex. 51, ECF No. 194-5, Page ID# 8798. After the review was completed, Roberts learned that there were other products, in addition to the one previously mentioned, that were not being mixed properly under Widmar's supervision.

Also around this time, Roberts believed Widmar was not communicating effectively. Specifically, Roberts was disappointed when he learned Widmar implemented a change in Sun Chemical's electronic inventory system and failed to notify all employees of the change.

On November 18, 2009, Roberts terminated Widmar for performance issues relating to the quality of the products being manufactured under Widmar's supervision. At the discharge meeting, Widmar was informed he would not receive a severance because his termination was performance related.

On May 17, 2010, Widmar filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, (the "EEOC") alleging that his termination was the result of age discrimination. After he filed this charge, Widmar claims an individual informed him that Sun Chemical employees were accusing him of sabotaging Rycoline products intentionally. Widmar considered such comments defamatory and on February 8, 2011, filed another charge with the EEOC alleging retaliation and age discrimination.

Widmar filed his Complaint in this Court on March 15, 2011. The counts that remain include (1) an age discrimination claim against Sun Chemical in violation of 29 U.S.C. § 621; (2) a retaliation claim against Sun Chemical in violation of 29 U.S.C. § 621; and (3) a state law defamation claim against Sun Chemical, Defendant Theodore Knott and Defendant Charles Ramsey, two Sun Chemical employees, (hereinafter, collectively, the "Defendants"). Defendants have moved for summary judgment on all counts.

II. LEGAL STANDARD

Summary judgment is appropriate if the moving party "shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and [it] is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." FED. R. CIV. P. 56(a). A dispute is "genuine" if the evidence would permit a reasonable jury to find for the non-moving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A dispute is material if it could affect the outcome of the case. Id. If the moving party satisfies its burden, the non-movant must present facts to show a genuine dispute exists to avoid summary judgment. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323-24 (1986). To establish a genuine issue of fact, the non-moving party "must do more than show that there is some metaphysical doubt as the material facts." Sarver v. Experian Info. Sys., 390 F.3d 969, 970 (7th Cir. 2004).

III. DISCUSSION

A. Age Discrimination

Widmar alleges Sun Chemical discriminated against him in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (the "ADEA"), 29 U.S.C. § 621. Sun Chemical argues it is entitled to summary judgment because Widmar cannot establish a prima facie case.

The ADEA makes it unlawful for an employer to "discharge... or otherwise discriminate against any individual... because of such individual's age." 29 U.S.C. § 623(a). To sustain a claim under the ADEA, a plaintiff must prove that age was a determining factor in the employer's decision to fire him. McCoy v. WGN Cont'l Broad. Co., 957 F.2d 368, 371 (7th Cir. 1992). While age does not need to be the sole reason motivating an employer's decision to terminate, a plaintiff must establish that he would not have been fired but for the employer's intent to discriminate on the basis of age. Id. A plaintiff may prove age discrimination using either the "direct method" or the "indirect method." See, e.g., Cerutti v. BASF Corp., 349 F.3d 1055, 1060-61 (7th Cir. 2003).

1. Direct Method

Under the direct method, a plaintiff must present direct or circumstantial evidence that establishes age was a determining factor in the employer's decision to terminate the plaintiff. McCoy, 957, F.2d at 371. Such evidence could include admissions or near-admissions by the employer that its termination decision was based on plaintiff's age. See Lindsey v. Walgreen Co., 08 C 3547, 2009 WL 4730953 at *3 (N.D. Ill.Dec. 8, 2009) (explaining that an example of direct proof could be a statement from an employer such as "[y]ou're too old to work here.").

Widmar fails to present any direct evidence which suggests his termination was motivated because of his age. Instead, he argues that he can proceed under the direct method through the use of "ordinary or mosaic circumstantial evidence." Pl.'s Mem. in Opp. to Defs.' Mot. for Summ. J. at 11. There are three categories of circumstantial evidence that a plaintiff may rely upon to make such a showing:

(1) suspicious timing, ambiguous oral or written statements, or behavior toward or comments directed at other employees in the protected group; (2) evidence, whether or not rigorously statistical, that similarly situated employees outside the protected class received systematically better treatment; and (3) evidence that the employee was qualified for the job in question but was passed over in ...

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