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Wei v. Deere & Co.

United States District Court, C.D. Illinois, Rock Island Division

September 19, 2014

NAN WEI, Plaintiff,
v.
DEERE & COMPANY, Defendant.

ORDER

SARA DARROW, District Judge.

Plaintiff Nan Wei brings this action against his employer, Defendant Deere & Company, alleging that Deere discriminated against him and then retaliated against him in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act ("ADEA"), 29 U.S.C. § 621. Before the Court are the parties' cross motions for summary judgment. For the following reasons, the Court GRANTS Deere's Motion for Summary Judgment, ECF No. 81, DENIES Wei's Motion for Summary Judgment, ECF No. 82, and GRANTS Deere's Motion for Leave to File an Attachment Under Seal, ECF No. 90.[1]

BACKGROUND

Having reviewed the statements of material fact and supporting exhibits in accordance with Local Rule 7.1(D), the Court constructs the following narrative from the undisputed facts as well as from the disputed material facts construing them in a light most favorable to the nonmoving party.

A. Wei's History and Deere's Business Practices

Wei has been employed as a Project Staff Engineer at Deere since January 1, 2000. Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. ¶ 1; Pl.'s Resp. ¶ 1, ECF No. 85. Wei holds a doctorate degree in chemical engineering, has several patents, and has received innovation awards from Deere. Pl.'s SMF ¶¶ 3, 4, ECF No. 82-1. From 2007 to 2010, Deere rated Wei's annual "Overall Total Performance Rating" as "Successful" or "Highly Successful."[2]

As a Deere employee, Wei is subject to Deere's Business Conduct Guidelines and received training on the same. Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. ¶ 11. The Business Conduct Guidelines require that all books and records be kept accurately and that they fairly reflect all business transactions. Id . Wei is also subject to Deere's Travel Guidelines, which provide that Deere is not responsible for personal expenses incurred when extending business travel and indicate that medical expenses are not reimbursable. Id . at ¶ 8. When traveling on behalf of Deere, employees must submit certain information in order to be reimbursed for a meal expense: a description of the meal, the name of the establishment where the meal was had, and what meal was consumed (e.g., breakfast, lunch, dinner). Id . at ¶ 9. As of 2008, in order for a Deere employee to claim a cash reimbursement on his expense report, the employee was required to send receipts for any expenditure of $75 or greater.[3] Julia Mahoney-Hansen Dep. at 35-38, ECF No. 82-23. Until January 1, 2008, [4] Deere gave its employees additional compensation in the form of "hardship pay" for having to travel overnight to certain hardship locations. Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. ¶ 7.

A significant portion of Wei's work time in 2008 and 2009 was spent traveling in China. Pl.'s SMF ¶ 10; Pl.'s Ex. 9 at 14. Wei's duties involved new paint systems for two Deere factories in Xuzhou and Ningbo, China. Pl.'s SMF ¶ 7. Wei was also tasked with training and mentoring Marguerite Wu.[5] Id . at ¶ 8. Wei avers that Wu is "in her 30s." See Wei Aff. ¶ 1, ECF No. 82-2. Deere admits that it employed Wu in China but asserts that "[h]er age is unknown." Def.'s Resp. ¶ 8, ECF No. 84.

B. Deere's Investigation of Wei

In November of 2009, Kathy Harmon became Wei's supervisor. Pl.'s SMF ¶ 11. On November 18, 2009, Travel and Expense Department employee Linda McManus emailed Wei, stating that his travel expense report needed additional information. Def.'s Ex. 11 at 2, ECF No. 81-12. McManus indicated that she had forwarded a copy of Wei's report to Harmon for her review. Id . Harmon replied to both Wei and McManus, asking Wei to use his corporate credit card for all purchases and reminding him to provide receipts if his expenses exceeded $25. Id . at 1. Harmon also noted that some of Wei's expenses were over three months old and that he had reported ten charges for transportation on one day. Id .

On December 3, 2009, Harmon reported to Human Resources supervisor Julia Mahoney-Hansen that she was concerned that there was an inappropriate relationship between Wei and Wu and that she was troubled by inconsistencies in Wei's expense reporting. Pl.'s Ex. 21 at 1, ECF No. 82-19. While the investigation was ongoing in 2009, Wei told Harmon that he was 70 years old; however, Harmon did not know Wei's age until he gave her this information. Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. at ¶ 2; Harmon Dep. 9-10, ECF No. 81-3. At some point before December 18, 2009, Harmon told Wei that there were concerns about his meal expenses; Wei replied that he was too busy to request reimbursement for hardship pay and other expenses, so he included such expenses in his meal reimbursement requests. Def's. Mot. Summ. J. at ¶ 21. Wei lists this as an undisputed material fact but qualifies that "the communication was coerced out of Dr. Wei becuse [sic] of Dr. Wei's desire to be quickly sent back to his project work in China. In reporting his meal expenses, he never tried to use them to cover his hardship pay of [sic] any other costs." Pl.'s Resp. at ¶ 21, ECF No. 85. The Court concludes that Wei's distinction is merely an attempt to put self-serving gloss on an already qualified admission. Wei's deposition testimony[6] and emails[7] make clear that during the investigation he told Harmon and others that it was his practice to include hardship pay and other expenses in his meal expenses when submitting his travel expense reports. Accordingly, the underlying factual assertion-that Wei indicated that he included hardship pay and other expenses in his meal expenses-is deemed admitted. On December 18, 2009, Harmon emailed Wei regarding his travel expenses and noted that he reported three meals a day for each day and that the amount was always approximately the same; she reminded Wei to use his corporate credit card and to only turn in those expenses that he had actually incurred. Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. at ¶ 19; Def.'s Ex. 11 at 4.

In January 2010, Wei became aware that Deere was investigating his travel expense reporting. Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. ¶ 22. Wei's management team restricted him from traveling while the investigation was ongoing. Id .; Mahoney-Hansen Dep. at 74-75. When deposed, Wei testified that he would request reimbursement for three meals a day to indicate that he ate multiple meals, even though on any given day he might eat two, three, or four meals. Wei Dep. at 97-107, ECF No. 81-1. The total amount of meal reimbursement Wei requested on his travel expense reports was below the amount Deere required to submit a receipt or itemization. Pl.'s SMF ¶ 33. During the investigation, Wei emailed Joy Peterson, a Deere employee who worked in international human resources, that "instead of taking the time to report the hardship payments properly, I added about $10 a day to my daily meal expense and increased the daily meal expense to $35 to $45 range." Wei Dep. at 224 at 225. Wei attempted to qualify this admission, stating "[A]fter they told me that I spend too much money on meal expense, I ask [Harmon], How much are you thinking? She says, maybe about ten. I don't know. Okay, $10, my hardship pay wouldn't even cover, so I tried to find an amount of money to cover they claim that I overcharged, so.... that's what I told [Peterson] to get some number from her, so I could send it to [Mahoney-Hansen] and say, Hey, look, I didn't get too much money." Wei Dep. at 246.

Mahoney-Hansen provided the results of the entire investigation[8] to her manager in human resources, Mike Addington, who determined the course of discipline. Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. ¶ 37; Mahoney-Hansen Dep. at 57. Wei was found to have violated Deere's Business Conduct Guidelines by failing to provide accurate financial records and by not submitting actual expenses.[9] Def's Mot. Summ. J. ¶ 40; Mahoney-Hansen Dep. at 92-94; Def.'s Ex. 17 at 1-2, ECF No. 81-18. Wei was disciplined for knowingly and repeatedly (1) misusing the meal expense category to reimburse himself for other expenses, (2) not following Deere processes for medical/dental treatment and hardship pay, and (3) not properly recording vacation time.[10] Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. at ¶ 41; Def.'s Ex. 17 at 1-2. Ultimately, the allegation regarding an improper relationship between Wei and Wu was found to be unsubstantiated. Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. at ¶ 35.

C. Deere's Disciplinary Action Against Wei

On March 2, 2010, Deere took the following disciplinary action pursuant to its investigation: (1) Wei was ineligible for a Mid-Term Incentive ("MTI") payout if one was awarded for 2010; (2) Wei was prohibited from travelling internationally; (3) Wei's job responsibilities would change to encompass non-paint system responsibilities including but not limited to lab paint testing and other duties as assigned; (4) any time spent supporting paint systems internationally would be done remotely; and (5) based on the change in job duties, Wei's work would be evaluated and properly graded. Id. at ¶¶ 39, 42. The MTI that Wei could have been eligible for ranged between $8, 000 and $10, 000. Id. at ¶ 44; Mahoney-Hansen Dep. 77. Deere's disciplinary action did not affect Wei's labor grade, and he was not demoted in 2010. Def's Mot. Summ. J. at ¶ 45; Wei Dep. at 255-256. In fact, Wei was told by Deere managers that the investigation and discipline had nothing to do with his performance in China and that Deere was happy with his performance in China. Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. at ¶ 47; Wei Dep. at 270-271.

D. Wei's Job Duties After the Disciplinary Action and Deere's Alleged Favoritism Towards ...


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