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Netzinger v. National Railroad Passenger Corp.

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

June 19, 2018

Katherine Netzinger, Plaintiff,
The National Railroad Passenger Corporation, Defendant.


          Manish S. Shah United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Katherine Netzinger worked as a station manager for defendant The National Railroad Passenger Corporation (more commonly known as Amtrak). After Netzinger shipped boxes on an Amtrak train without paying-which employees are only permitted to do if the shipment is for business purposes-Amtrak terminated her employment. Netzinger brought this suit alleging that her termination constituted unlawful age discrimination in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, 29 U.S.C. § 621, et seq. Amtrak moves for summary judgment, and for the following reasons, its motion is granted.

         I. Legal Standards

         Summary judgment is appropriate if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A genuine dispute as to any material fact exists if “the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). The party seeking summary judgment has the burden of establishing that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). In determining whether a genuine issue of material fact exists, the court must construe all facts and reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. See King v. Ford Motor Co., 872 F.3d 833, 837 (7th Cir. 2017).

         II. Background

         Netzinger first worked for Amtrak from 1978 through 1995, when she left voluntarily.[1] [45] ¶ 3.[2] In 2007, when Netzinger was 54 years old, Amtrak recruited her to come back as a station manager. Id. ¶ 4. Netzinger accepted and was rehired in January 2008. Id. ¶ 5. Five years later, Amtrak underwent a national reorganization, eliminating certain positions in the process. Id. ¶ 7. Around that time, Netzinger was placed in a newly created administrative station-manager position. Id. ¶ 8. In that role, Netzinger sometimes performed her old station-manager duties in addition to her new administrative duties. Id. ¶ 9.[3] Her title was later changed to station manager II. Id. ¶ 8.

         In April 2014, Benjamin Sheets became the Superintendent of Long Distance Trains at the Chicago station and Netzinger's manager. Id. ¶¶ 11-12. Sheets also supervised other station managers, including Mildred Stalling, Donald Harris, Jonathan Slemons, [4] and Cynthia Rogers (a ticket office station manager). Id. ¶ 6. All five station managers who worked under Sheets were over 40 years old. Id. ¶¶ 4, 35-38.

         When Netzinger was rehired as a station manager in 2008, her starting salary was $61, 400. Id. ¶ 33. Throughout her employment she received several merit increases, including a 4% increase in September 2014, while she worked under Sheets. Id. Her ending salary was $71, 882, which was 92.2% of the midpoint salary for station manager II positions nationwide. Id. ¶¶ 33, 40. Two other station managers received similar or lower salaries. When Stalling became a station manager in 2012 her salary was $70, 000, and she received a 2.5% merit increase in 2014. Id. ¶ 35. Slemons was never paid more than Netzinger. Id. ¶ 36. Two station managers who had previously been employed in higher paying positions retained their salaries when they became station managers. Rogers made around $101, 000 and Harris earned $79, 000. Id. ¶¶ 37-38.

         Sheets set goals that went above Amtrak's national requirements, and those goals affected the workloads of the station managers working for him. Id. ¶ 57. Netzinger's workload increased under Sheets. Id. ¶ 55. Before Sheets took over, Netzinger had been taken out of the rotation for floor operations to give her time accomplish her administrative tasks, but Sheets put her back on the regular station manager rotation to make up for a recently eliminated station-manager position. Id. ¶¶ 9, 55-56. Given that she held the highest position in the station, Netzinger was assigned more duties than the other station managers and worked around 75 hours a week while when she was a station manager II. Id. ¶¶ 58-59. Sheets formally assigned some of Netzinger's administrative duties to other station managers, but there was never enough time for Netzinger to train them. Id. ¶ 63. Sheets occasionally took over projects for other station managers to do them himself, but he never took over any of Netzinger's projects. Id. ¶ 64; [43-1] at 267:4-270:22.

         On at least one occasion, Sheets sent out a list of projects to the station managers and asked them to rank their preferences, and he did not assign Netzinger her preferred projects. See id. ¶¶ 60-62. Sheets put Netzinger on a performance improvement plan, which identified goals and areas for improvement. Id. ¶ 45. Some of the goals identified in her plan were things all station managers were expected to complete. Id. ¶ 48.[5] Sheets also put Stalling, the youngest station manager, on a performance improvement plan-though Stalling was allowed to apply for other positions while she was on her plan, and Netzinger was not. Id. ¶¶ 46, 53. In her 2014 performance evaluation Sheets wrote, “Kathy is the expert in claims, grievance, discipline and attendance.” [48] ¶ 74.

         Netzinger complained about her workload to Sheets sometime around March 2015, to which he told her she must be “getting too old for the workload” and that she would have to take work home or work longer hours if she could not keep up. [45] ¶ 65; [48] ¶ 72.[6] In a separate incident, when discussing the possibility of creating a pool of temporary station managers, Sheets said he did not want any “old timers” and that he only wanted younger candidates. [45] ¶ 66. In another meeting about a new iPad program, Sheets again said that he only wanted younger employees to be involved. [48] ¶ 71. In July 2015, Netzinger wrote a letter to the Senior EEO Compliance Specialist complaining about a hostile work environment and alleging that Sheets had violated FMLA and discriminated against her based on her age. [45] ¶ 67; [43-1] at 71-78; [43-4] at 18-19. Rogers, another station manager, also believed that Sheets treated her differently, and ultimately terminated her, because on her age. [48] ¶¶ 69-70. Lisa Simane took over Sheets's role sometime in mid to late 2015. [45] ¶ 12.

         Amtrak employees are required to comply with company policies. While Amtrak employees could utilize Amtrak's railroad business service (referred to as RRB) to ship work-related items, Amtrak's Baggage Policy prohibited employees from shipping personal belongings via RRB without paying. Id. ¶ 16. Instead, employees were required pay to have personal items shipped by a separate Amtrak service. Id. Netzinger was aware of this policy. Id. ¶ 18. Amtrak's ethical policy “requires all employees to observe the highest standards of business ethics. We must conduct the business and operations of Amtrak and our affairs in a manner that complies with applicable law and high moral and ethical standards and avoids any possible conflict of interest or appearance of a conflict of interest.” Id. ¶ 17. And all Amtrak employees are specifically prohibited from engaging in theft or any other form of wrongful conversion of Amtrak property. Id.

         In September 2015, Netzinger attempted to ship 392 pounds of goods in seven boxes from the Minneapolis-St. Paul station to the Chicago station using RRB. Id. ¶ 19. Two of the boxes shipped, but the other five were overweight and so did not. Id. When Netzinger realized that not all of her boxes had arrived in Chicago, she called the Minneapolis-St. Paul station to find out why. Id. She spoke with Don Anderson, a customer service representative, who was upset that Netzinger had tried to ship the boxes via RRB. Id. Anderson informed her that he would refer the matter to his supervisor, who then called Sheets. Id. ¶¶ 19-20. Sheets told the supervisor to work with James Brzezinski to obtain statements regarding the incident. Id. ¶ 20.[7] In his statement, Anderson said that Netzinger offered to pay over the phone, saying that she had always offered to pay when shipping items RRB, and that he refused her payment. Id. ¶ 21. He also said that while he had been on duty Netzinger had never offered to pay, “going back at least four years.” Id. Anderson noted that the boxes were of different commercial labels and that there was no package uniformity consistent with RRB shipments, leading him to believe the boxes were not RRB. Id. He also stated that later the same day, a former Amtrak employee came to pick up the boxes for Netzinger. Id. Netzinger, on the other hand, said that Anderson suggested to her that she pay for the shipment and she refused, saying she had previously used RRB and not paid and that these boxes were business-related and so properly sent through RRB. Id. ¶ 19; [43-1] at 230:14- 233:10.

         Brzezinski worked with an Amtrak employee relations representative to further investigate the incident. [45] ¶ 22. As part of the investigation Sheets and Simane interviewed Netzinger and asked her to prepare a written statement, which they sent back to the investigating employees. Id. ¶ 22. In her statement Netzinger stated that five of the boxes at issue contained books and National Geographic magazines she had planned to put in the Metropolitan Lounge for Amtrak customers. Id. Her mother had recently passed away, Netzinger noted, and she did not want to waste them. Id. The other two boxes contained candy, which Netzinger planned to give to Amtrak employees and which was cheaper in Minneapolis-St. Paul than in Chicago. Id. These two candy boxes were the ones that shipped successfully to Chicago (though Sheets never opened them to see what was inside). Id.; [43-3] at 12; [48] ¶ 73. Netzinger also asserted that she had previously shipped six to eight boxes of books and magazines from Minneapolis to Chicago using RRB, [45] ¶ 26, [8] and that in the past she had shipped personal business clothes while attending work events. Id. ΒΆ 23. Two other employees-neither of whom was a station manager-shipped personal items via RRB when they were transferred to new positions at other ...

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