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Jones v. J.B. Hunt Transport, Inc.

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

July 24, 2017



          John J. Tharp, Jr. United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Darlene Jones alleges that she was fired from her job because of her age in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, 29 U.S.C. § 623(a). Her employer has moved for summary judgment on the ground that Jones has not provided evidence that her age was the cause of her firing. The Court agrees and grants summary judgment for the defendant.


         On summary judgment, the Court construes all facts and draws all reasonable inferences in favor of Jones as the non-movant. Roberts v. Columbia Coll. Chi., 821 F.3d 855, 861 (7th Cir. 2016). Plaintiff Darlene Jones, a resident of Chicago, Illinois, was born in 1947. Def.'s Statement of Facts (“DSOF”) ¶ 1. Jones worked for defendant J.B. Hunt Transport, Inc. (“J.B. Hunt”) from approximately 1988 until her 2015 termination. See id. at ¶¶ 3, 16.

         J.B. Hunt is an international “containerized transport company” that moves commodities throughout North America. DSOF ¶ 10. Its industry is “both highly competitive and intensively time sensitive, ” making the timely delivery of cargo critical to its business. Id. at ¶ 11. The company employs a variety of individuals in a hierarchy to ensure that freight is loaded, unloaded, and transported in a timely fashion. Id. at ¶ 12.

         Jones began working at J.B. Hunt in 1988 as a dispatcher and was promoted to Fleet Manager in approximately 1990. DSOF ¶ 16. Fleet Managers oversee “all aspects of the driver operation” for 22-32 drivers each and are responsible for ensuring that loads are timely delivered. Id. at ¶ 12-13. Fleet Managers are also responsible for receiving and sending messages to drivers and customers, identifying and solving potential impediments to prompt delivery, assuring driver compliance with government regulations, and identifying and rectifying safety issues. Id. at ¶ 12-15. One of the safety-related tasks Fleet Managers perform is to monitor “hard braking” events (that is, occasions when drivers are required to suddenly and forcefully apply the vehicle's brakes; these are tracked by equipment on the truck) and to counsel or discipline drivers who show an excessive number of hard brakes (which can indicate aggressive driving or close following and thus serve as risk indicators). Id. at ¶ 14.

         The trouble began for Jones when she received a Corrective Action Notice on March 3, 2009 for failing to document safety events in a timely manner. DSOF ¶ 18. One month later, Jones's manager gave her a mixed performance review, noting that drivers had complained about waiting for messages and that the Fleet Manager position had “evolved from more of a dispatcher position to a true managerial position, ” causing Jones to struggle with multi-tasking and time management. Id. at ¶ 19. The manager stated in the evaluation that he believed Jones “would be better suited moving to another position within the office without as much responsibility.”[1] Id. The evaluation also contained a few positive comments, such as that Jones got “along well with her drivers.” See Ex. A Dep. Ex. 12 at 76-78. Jones responded to her performance review that she felt her manager “lack[ed] the managerial experience that allows him to conduct a fair and unbiased review, ” that the problem was just that certain “individuals do not work well together, ” and that “an employee is only as good as the leadership he or she receives.” Id. at 78.

         On July 10, 2009, manager Gary Lofgren issued an “Employee Challenge” which stated Jones must show improvement in multi-taking and improve the timeliness of her safety reports within 60 days. DSOF ¶ 21. The notice warned that “further performance issues will result in further disciplinary action up to and including termination.” Id. An “employee challenge” is intended as a “learning tool” and Jones was deemed to have completed the challenge within the 60 days. Pl.'s Resp. to DSOF (“PSOF”) ¶ 21. However, further “performance deficiencies” relating to scheduling failures were noted by her managers in November and December 2009. DSOF ¶ 23.

         In January 2010, Director of Operations Don Ingersoll and Vice President of Operations Ken Miller decided to transfer Jones to the position of Driver Services Representative (“DSR”) rather than terminate her for her continued performance issues. Id. at ¶ 24. Jones notes that she was told she was being transferred because the new position would be a better fit (and not explicitly that the transfer was a result of poor performance). PSOF ¶ 24. The new Fleet Manager was younger than Jones and had less experience. Id. J.B. Hunt asserts Miller transferred Jones because of her performance failures, not her age. DSOF ¶ 35.

         Jones did not make a claim for age discrimination at the time, although she knew the procedure for making such a complaint and that J.B. Hunt had an anti-discrimination policy. DSOF ¶¶ 17, 32. Jones believed, however, that her transfer was based on age (rather than performance) because she had the most seniority in her department and was the oldest. She also felt that Ingersoll and a manger named “Sean” had a certain attitude, and that Ingersoll sent Sean to stare at her after she became the DSR. Id. at ¶ 32. She described Ingersoll as “smiling, ignoring me, not getting back with answers and coming and sending Sean around to where I was working just to stare and grin and walk off.” Id. at ¶ 33. She also testified that she felt Ingersoll acted like her transfer was a joke. Id. She could not think of any specific examples of Ingersoll displaying this attitude. Id. Jones further testified at her deposition that Sean (her immediate supervisor) would come to her office and make comments like “are you busy back here?” and “you don't get many phone calls back here?” DSOF ¶ 34. Jones “assumed” these were jokes and took them to be a comparison between the DSR and Fleet Manager positions. Id.

         Jones's new job, as DSR, focused on ensuring that a “daily physical inventory” was taken of the yards at J.B. Hunt's Chicago facility to ensure their tracking system accurately showed which loads had been delivered and which were waiting. DSOF ¶ 25. The DSR's main job is to be the last line of defense against shipment tracking errors. Id. The DSR also had other miscellaneous duties, like passing out keys and maintaining courtesy cars (including logging the cars and keeping them fueled so they are always available). Id. at ¶ 26-27. There is only one DSR per facility, so the DSR's “attendance is also critical” to the functioning of each terminal. Id. at ¶ 28.

         As a result of her transfer, Jones was no longer eligible for a bonus. DSOF ¶ 31. When she learned this, Jones questioned Human Resources, Ingersoll, and Miller. Id. Ingersoll said he would check and get back to her, the others confirmed her new position was not bonus eligible. Id. After learning this, Jones objected to being asked to do any duties she had done as Fleet Manager and told her manager (Rachel Christensen) that she expected to receive a bonus if those duties became a larger share of her time. Id. at ¶ 36. After she complained, however, she was not asked to do those tasks except in emergencies. Id. After the bonus issue, Jones alleges Christensen made comments about her decision not to do Fleet Manager work, which Jones took to mean Christensen had taken the refusal personally. DSOF ¶ 37. Christensen says she did not take the issue personally, and that when they discussed bonus eligibility, it was because Jones would ask about it and Christensen would remind her that the DSR position was not bonus eligible. Id. at ¶ 38.

         Jones also alleges that Christensen would occasionally make comments about her health or appearance, such as “you look tired, ” “are you feeling well?” and “are you up to the job?” DSOF ¶ 39. Jones does not recall the frequency of the comments or any specific context. Id. Christensen admits she made the comments when Jones appeared tired or sluggish because she was concerned for Jones's health and welfare. Id. at ¶ 40. Christensen stated she would make similar inquiries for any employee, regardless of age, because it is her job to make sure her employees are okay and “able to perform their jobs.” Id.

         In April 2013, Christensen provided Jones with her annual review, which flagged a number of deficiencies in communication, problem-solving, and record organization (although it was not entirely negative about other aspects of Jones's performance). DSOF ¶ 42. Christensen also criticized Jones's attendance, as she had five “call offs” (absences) in the first four months of 2013. Id. at ¶ 43. This began a series of attendance-related write ups by her managers in January 2014 and June 2014 along with fifteen absences or tardiness incidents in 2015. Id. at ¶¶ 45, 46, 50. Jones viewed these notices as “slightly petty” and “frivolous” although she acknowledges they are correct and that she did not know if she was being treated more harshly than anyone else. Id. at ΒΆ 47. Typically J.B. Hunt considered attendance ...

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