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Haffner v. New Concepts Development Corporation

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

March 30, 2018

TODD HAFFNER, Plaintiff,
v.
NEW CONCEPTS DEVELOPMENT CORPORATION, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          REBECCA R. PALLMEYER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Todd Haffner brings this suit for relief against his former employer under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”), 29 U.S.C. § 621-34. From February 2010 to August 2014, Haffner worked for Defendant New Concepts Development Corp. (“NCDC”) as its Director of Information Technology and Information Systems. On August 28, 2014, NCDC terminated Haffner's employment. Haffner filed a one-count complaint against NCDC on June 27, 2015, in which he claims that NCDC “willfully discriminated” against him because of his age by not following NCDC's internal disciplinary procedures and by holding him to a higher standard of performance than his similarly-situated coworkers who were under 40 years old. (First Amended Complaint [6] (“Am. Compl.”), ¶ 11.)[1]

         NCDC tells a very different story. It claims that Haffner was terminated based on his insubordination, poor performance, and multiple instances of misconduct. In addition, NCDC asserts that after being fired, Haffner logged on to the company's network from his home computer and sabotaged critical business data. Defendant NCDC has moved for summary judgment, arguing that Haffner can prove neither NCDC's liability nor his own entitlement to damages. (Defendant NCDC's Motion for Summary Judgment [74] (“Def.'s SJ Mot.”), 1-2.)

         Defendant has also moved to sanction Haffner under Fed.R.Civ.P. 37 for numerous discovery violations and his generally “vexatious and contumacious conduct throughout this case.” (Defendant NCDC's Motion for Sanctions [85], 1-2.)

         For the reasons stated here, Defendant's motion for summary judgment [74] is granted. Defendant's motion for sanctions [85] is denied.

         BACKGROUND

         NCDC is an Illinois company that designs, manufactures, and distributes after-market accessories for Apple products. Around February 5, 2010, Haffner was hired by NCDC as its Director of Information Technology and Information Systems (“IT/IS”). (Defendant NCDC's Local Rule 56.1 Statement of Undisputed Facts [76] (“DSOF”), ¶ 5.) In his role as Director of IT/IS at NCDC, Haffner managed a small team of employees, served on the company's leadership team, and reported directly to the president of the company. (Id. at ¶¶ 5, 9.) At the time Haffner was hired, Larry O'Connor, the founder and CEO of NCDC, served as president. (Id.) Haffner does not dispute that O'Connor had the authority to assign company projects to Haffner's team, and that Haffner could be held accountable for his team's performance and ability to meet deadlines. (Pl.'s Resp. to DSOF [94] ¶¶ 6-8.)

         Like all of NCDC's employees, Haffner was subject to the various “employment policies and practices” outlined in NCDC's Employee Handbook. (DSOF ¶ 10.) The Handbook stated that employees could be disciplined for insubordination, showing disrespect towards fellow employees, disclosing confidential communications to third parties, and poor performance. (Employee Handbook at NCDC0000108, 124-25, Ex. 6 to DSOF [76-7].) Potential disciplinary actions included warnings, suspensions, and discharge from the company, depending on the circumstances. (Id. at NCDC0000108.) The Handbook made clear that there no “guarantee that one form of [disciplinary] action will necessarily precede another.” (Id.) The Handbook emphasized further that NCDC was an at-will employer, and that either side could “terminate the employment relationship at any time, for any reason, with or without cause or notice.” (Id. at NCDC0000159.) In March 2012, Haffner signed a document acknowledging that he received a copy of the Employee Handbook and agreed to comply with its terms. (Deposition of Todd Haffner 76:9-77:7 (“Haffner Dep.”), Ex. 1 to DSOF [76-2].)

         In support of its motion for summary judgment, NCDC cites a mountain of evidence suggesting that Haffner acted insubordinately, repeatedly disclosed internal communications in e-mails to outsiders, missed deadlines, and refused to accept responsibility for the failure of a major IT project. In 2012, Haffner was appointed as the project manager of a major, company-wide software package called “SYSPRO.” (DSOF ¶ 24-30.) NCDC invested over $300, 000 in SYSPRO, and, for more than one year, Haffner and four other employees dedicated the majority of their time to the project. (Id. at ¶ 28.) The project ultimately failed around the end of 2013 due to repeated technical issues and delays. (Haffner Dep. 255:7-259:14, 266:1-268:15.)

         After the SYSPRO failure, Haffner was disciplined for violating company policy on several occasions. On March 27 and April 3, 2014, Haffner shared internal e-mail threads with outsiders-acts which O'Connor and others criticized as “paint[ing] [NCDC] in a bad light.” (DSOF ¶¶ 13-16.) O'Connor issued a “verbal warning” to Haffner for these incidents of “poor judgment” on April 7, 2014. (Employee Performance Form, Ex. 8 to DSOF [76-9]) (signed by Haffner). Both of these incidents were also discussed at length in Haffner's annual performance review, which Haffner received on June 20, 2014. (2014 Annual Review of Todd Haffner 2-3, 8-9, Ex. 9 to DSOF [76-10].) Haffner's annual performance review with O'Connor also discussed the SYSPRO project's failure; O'Connor hoped that Haffner could learn from the experience. (Id. at 2-3, 6-8.) Despite these criticisms, O'Connor appeared to be otherwise satisfied with Haffner's performance, and rated Haffner as “highly effective” (one rank above average). (Id. at 7.)

         During his tenure at NCDC, Haffner admitted that he frequently took issue with O'Connor's management style; in particular, he objected to O'Connor's practice of “bypassing” Haffner and assigning projects directly to Haffner's team. (Haffner Dep. 88:9-92:4, 98:11- 99:22.) Haffner acknowledged that O'Connor had the right to make these direct assignments, but took the position that O'Connor could not hold him personally accountable for any of the assignments that “Larry [O'Connor] wanted [Haffner's team] to work on without going through me.” (Id. at 88:9-90:14) (stating that Haffner was only “somewhat” accountable for his department's performance). Haffner took this concern to O'Connor more than 20 times up until his termination. (Id. at 98:11-99:22.)

         Furthermore, Haffner was demonstrably upset by NCDC's decision to restructure its management team in early June 2014. After the restructuring, Jennifer Soulé succeeded O'Connor as president of NCDC, and Haffner began reporting to Soulé instead. (DSOF ¶ 31.) Haffner's role within the company also changed. NCDC split his job of “Director of IT/IS” in two: Haffner remained the Director of IS, while one of his former subordinates became the Director of IT. (Id. at ¶ 32.) At the same time, NCDC discussed creating a new role which would rank above Haffner's position. (Id. at 33.) Haffner characterized these moves as “stabbing [him] in the back.” (E-mail from Todd Haffner of 6/8/14, Ex. 12 to DSOF [76-13]; Haffner Dep. 231:18- 233:30.) When he received his annual review on June 20, Haffner was also disappointed by the associated pay raise. (See E-mail from Jennifer Soulé to JoAnn Olson of 7/24/14, Ex. 13 to DSOF [76-14]; Haffner Age Discrimination Timeline 2-3, Ex. 3 to DSOF [76-4]) (stating that Haffner received a 2% raise but “should have” received 4.6%). Haffner blamed his meager raise on the fact that Soulé was now his boss. (Id.)

         During July 2014, the relationship between Haffner and NCDC's management deteriorated. Soulé and O'Connor repeatedly expressed concerns about Haffner's behavior: “especially his judgment.” (E-mail from Jennifer Soulé to JoAnn Olson of 7/24/14.) Soulé believed that Haffner was also unhappy that Soulé was promoted to the position of president of NCDC and he was not. (Id.) Soulé told NCDC's HR manager that she hoped to give Haffner another chance to see “if he ultimately takes any responsibility for the [SYSPRO] failure.” (Id.) On July 25, O'Connor forwarded to Soulé an e-mail in which Haffner had corrected him on a minor point-O'Connor remarked to Soulé “[n]ot sure why I tolerated this crap. . . . Todd back in debate mode.” (E-mail from Lawrence O'Connor to Jennifer Soulé of 7/25/17, Ex. 14 to DSOF [76-15].) Finally, at a meeting on July 28, Haffner openly criticized O'Connor in front of his coworkers. (Summary of 7/28/14 Meeting, Ex. 16 to DSOF [76-17].) While O'Connor-who was attending the meeting remotely via speakerphone-was talking, Haffner stood up, muted the phone, and stated to the other employees in the room that O'Connor “just doesn't get it.” (Id.) Haffner repeated the sentiment to other coworkers in follow-up conversations over the next few days. (Id.)

         Soulé made the decision to fire Haffner on August 25, 2014, in consultation with O'Connor. (E-mail from Jennifer Soulé to Jennifer Soulé of 8/25/14, Ex. 17 to DSOF [76-18]) (Soulé's contemporaneous notes from the meeting state that she and O'Connor discussed how Haffner took time during managers' meetings to “make fun of” and “complain about things, ” and that Haffner exhibited “insubordination and not fitting in with culture”). Haffner was informed of his termination in a meeting with Soulé and NCDC's HR manager at 8:45 a.m. on August 28, 2014. Haffner's termination letter stated that he was being fired “due to [his] work performance not meeting the standards and expectations of [NCDC].” (Termination Letter, Ex. 20 to DSOF [76-21].) Defendant claims that Haffner's insubordination, disclosure of internal communications, missing deadlines, and ...


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