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Broadstone v. Sherman's Place, Inc.

United States District Court, C.D. Illinois

December 12, 2017

LAURA BROADSTONE, JULIE BOESCH, and RENEE BOESCH, Plaintiffs,
v.
SHERMAN'S PLACE, INC., Defendant.

          ORDER AND OPINION

          JAMES E. SHADID CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Now before the Court is Defendant's Motion [31] for Summary Judgment as to Plaintiff Laura Broadstone. For the reasons set forth below, Defendant's Motion [31] is GRANTED in part and DENIED in part.

         Background[1]

         Defendant, Sherman's Place, Inc. (“Sherman's”), is a corporation in the business of selling appliances, electronics, furniture, and mattresses. Sherman's has stores in Peoria, Normal, and Peru, Illinois. Plaintiff, Laura Broadstone, began working for Sherman's in Peoria on February 14, 2011 as a commission-based sales professional. During her tenure at Sherman's, Broadstone consistently ranked among the top salespeople. Like her co-Plaintifffs, however, Broadstone's relationship with other Sherman's employees was more complicated.

         One of those employees was Jim Torok. Torok, one of Sherman's store managers, was not particularly liked by most Sherman's employees. Broadstone complained about Torok to another Sherman's manager, Tony Hnilicka, on February 6 and March 6, 2014. According to Broadstone, she told Hnilicka that she was having a problem with Torok treating her different than he treated other men, making humiliating and rude comments to her, and not splitting commissions with her. Doc. 36-2 (Broadstone Dep. at 133). Broadstone testified that Hnilicka responded to her complaint by stating that she was not being treated differently than men. Broadstone Dep. at 135. Broadstone also complained to Hnilicka about Torok on March 6, 2014. Plaintiff testified at her deposition that she again complained to Hnilicka about Torok treating her differently than male employees and also complained that Torok interfered with her attempted sale of furniture to a customer Broadstone had worked with in the past. Id. at 146-49.

         On March 24, 2014, Broadstone told Assistant Manager Paul Dan Stein that she wanted to speak with Hnilicka and Human Resources Manager Renee Boesch about Torok treating her differently than men. Id. at 160-61. She also told Stein that other salespeople-Josh Osterman, Joe Moon, Roger Bauer, Jeff Brooks, and Dennis Farney-witnessed Torok's conduct and would be able to vouch for her claims. Id. at 170-73. Stein informed Hnilicka and Boesch that Broadstone was complaining about Torok picking on her, but he did not mention Broadstone's complaint that she was being treated differently than men. Boesch and Hnilicka proceeded to interview five or six of the salespeople Broadstone listed. Doc. 29-1 (R. Boesch Dep. at 196-97). According to Boesch, Hnilicka led the interviews and asked the salesmen whether Broadstone was the problem, to which some agreed. R. Boesch Dep. at 197. On March 28, 2014, Boesch and Hnilicka decided to discipline Broadstone for “complaining about multiple team members to multiple team members, ” being disruptive in her conversations, and not going to Human Resources. Doc. 31-1, at 95 (Employee Transaction Form).

         On April 29, 2014, Hnilicka received a telephone call from a customer who was upset about a mattress Broadstone recently sold to him. Willie Oliver, another Sherman's salesperson, was present and heard Hnilicka's side of the phone conversation with the customer. According to Hnilicka, the customer claimed that Broadstone represented that the clearance mattress was only tried out in the store and that it was discounted simply because it was the last year's model. Doc. 31-3 (Hnilicka Dep. at 36-37). The customer complained that Broadstone lied in order to sell him a used mattress because when it was delivered it was dirty and had markings on it. Hnilicka Dep. at 52. The stock keeping unit (“SKU”) for the mattress indicated that it was a “satisfaction” mattress, meaning that it had been purchased and returned by a customer who was not satisfied with it. Broadstone admitted at her deposition that she did not see that the mattress was a satisfaction mattress. Broadstone Dep. at 342. However, Broadstone also testified that the words “never used” were written on the mattress tag, and that she explained to the customer that she was unsure why this particular mattress was on clearance. Similarly, Oliver testified that he went to look at the clearance mattresses immediately after the incident and observed four mattresses with “never used” written on the tags. Doc. 36-3 (Oliver Dep. at 34); Doc. 36-1, at 3 (photograph of a mattress tag with “never used” written on tag).

         Hnilicka resolved the customer's complaint by replacing the half-price clearance mattress with a new mattress at no additional charge. Hnilicka then informed Boesch that a customer had called in and reported that Broadstone lied by selling him a used mattress she was pretending was a new mattress. Hnilicka and Boesch met with Broadstone on May 1, 2014, provided her with an Employee Transaction Form, and terminated her employment with Sherman's. See Doc. 31-1, at 97 (Employee Transaction Form). Sherman's stated in the Employee Transaction Form that, “[b]ased on the customer's very detailed knowledge of what our sales terminology was, we feel that Laura blatantly violated procedure to increase her sales. We are therefore terminating her employment effective immediately.” Id. At his deposition, Hnilicka testified as follows:

Q. Did Laura ask you to take you down to the mattress area and show you the mattresses there to explain what had happened?
A. I believe.
Q. Did you go down with her and look?
A. No.
Q. You didn't believe-it was serious enough [for] you [to] believe it warranted termination, correct?
A . Yes.
Q. But you didn't think it was necessary for you to hear Laura's side of the story and have her show you the mattresses that ...

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