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VANDEGRIFT v. ATLANTIC ENVELOPE CO.

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania


April 6, 2004.

JOHN VANDEGRIFT
v.
ATLANTIC ENVELOPE CO

The opinion of the court was delivered by: HERBERT HUTTON, District Judge

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

Presently before the Court are Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Docket No. 42), Plaintiff's response (Docket No. 53), Defendant's reply (Docket No. 58), and Plaintiff's sur-response thereto (Docket No. 64).

I. BACKGROUND

  This suit arises out of Plaintiff John Vandegrift's ("Vandegrift") termination from Defendant Atlantic Envelope Company ("AECO"), a company in the envelope industry.

  John Vandegrift began his career in the envelope industry at Alien Envelope Company ("Alien Envelope") in 1984 as a machine adjuster. By the early 1990s, he had been promoted to facility maintenance manager. In 1998, AECO acquired Alien Envelope. As an AECO employee, Vandegrift retained the position of facility maintenance manager at the Pennsylvania envelope plant.

  A maintenance manager has two primary responsibilities: (1) "to provide the expertise and leadership when there are breakdowns and repairs needed;" and (2) to oversee a preventive maintenance program that keeps all the machines in top operating condition. See Wayne White Dep. at 13 (Docket No. 53, Ex. 3). As maintenance manager, Vandegrift also participated in special projects, such as the designing, building and relocating of the plant facility and the purchase and installation of new printing press equipment.

  Vandegrift was well respected for his technical knowledge and thrived in the technical aspects of his job, especially in special projects. Vandegrift's alleged weaknesses as a manager center solely around his interpersonal and communication skills. He was perceived as unable to communicate effectively with his maintenance team members and other machine adjusters.

  On July 12, 2000, Vandegrift met with Russell Stewart ("Stewart"), his immediate supervisor and the manufacturing manager, and Wayne White ("White"), the director of engineering with whom Vandegrift had worked extensively in the relocation of the plant facility. Stewart and White counseled Vandegrift on ways to improve his performance as maintenance manager. Specifically, Vandegrift was given a chart outlining his "current behavior" along with corresponding "desired behavior." See John Vandegrift Dep. Exs. 6, 7 (Docket No. 44). The "desired behavior" list included (1) devoting more time on the day-to-day maintenance of the equipment as opposed to special projects; (2) having more face-to-face and daily communication with his maintenance team and his supervisors; (3) spending more time on the floor; and (4) expressing his frustrations in a more appropriate manner.

  In the fall of 2000, Stewart received three e-mails that allegedly demonstrate Vandegrift's poor communication skills and failings as a manager. See, e.g., Vandegrift Dep. Ex. 9 (Sept. 29, 2000 e-mail re: not helpful in solving an equipment problem); Ex. 11 (Oct. 4, 2000 e-mail re: poor oversight of the repair of the conveyor machine); Ex. 12 (Oct. 9, 2000 e-mail re: inappropriate delegation of duties). Consequently, Stewart again reviewed the counseling chart with Vandegrift in January of 2001.

  Vandegrift's year 2000 annual performance review rated him as marginally meeting job requirements. See Vandegrift Dep. Ex. 13. The review acknowledged Vandegrift's technical expertise, his strong communication skills with his manager, his solid written communication skills, and his willingness to do anything asked of him. However, the review also stressed the same issues discussed at the July 2000 counseling session. See id. In a written response, Vandegrift reiterated his commitment to improve the way he communicated with others and to spend more time on the floor. See Vandegrift Dep. Ex. 14 (dated Feb. 18, 2001). Further, Vandegrift explained that many of the maintenance issues were the result of too much work with too few personnel.

  To improve his communication skills, Vandegrift attended a seminar entitled "How to Handle People with Tact and Skill." See Vandegrift Dep. Ex. 15. Shortly after, Vandegrift received praise for his efforts to reduce hazardous waste at the plant. His creative thinking in a machine purchase also saved AECO a substantial amount of money.

  Vandegrift's successes, however, were accompanied by setbacks in his managerial capacity. During the summer of 2001, Vandegrift had difficulty leading a team that was supposed to clean filters. In October 2001, Stewart addressed Vandegrift's concerns about a personnel shortage by asking Vandegrift to outline the responsibilities of potential new hires. Because this was a task new to him, Vandegrift sought help from James Brown, vice president and general manager of AECO, to help draft the report. The meeting never occurred, through no one's fault. As a result, Vandegrift failed to write an adequate report and no staff was added.

  Two events occurred in December of 2001. First, while Stewart knew about Vandegrift's vacation plans, Vandegrift allegedly failed to inform his team members that he was going to be out on vacation for a week. Second, on December 21, 2001, Vandegrift e-mailed Stewart and Brown expressing his frustration at recent events and, in particular, at the lack of communication between himself and his team. He recognized that he needed to delegate more tasks and asked for suggestions and training courses that would improve his performance as a manager. Stewart and Brown both interpreted the e-mail as Vandegrift's acknowledgment that he was failing in his managerial duties and asking to be relieved of those responsibilities. Vandegrift and Stewart spoke later that day and Stewart shared his thoughts about Vandegrift working as a consultant on special projects rather than as maintenance manager. Vandegrift understood the conversation to mean that he was being replaced. The two met again on December 26, at which point Stewart allegedly stated that there would be plenty of consulting work.

  On January 24, 2002, Vandegrift received a counseling memorandum from Stewart that alleged Vandegrift failed to help another employee on a project and used profane language in speaking to the employee. He was also warned that if such future complaints were found true, he would be terminated on the spot. See Vandegrift Dep. Ex. 23. In a written response, Vandegrift denied using foul language when speaking to an employee. He also explained that he had suggested one way of tackling a project to his team but when it was rejected, he felt it was best to allow them to approach the project in their own way. See id. Ex. 24.

  In early February 2002, Vandegrift told Robert Muma ("Muma"), the vice president of sales and marketing, that "he was being let go and he didn't know why and there was no warning." Robert Muma Dep., at 30 (Docket No. 53, Ex. A). Because Muma valued Vandegrift's technical expertise, Muma recommended to Brown that, if there were problems with Vandegrift's interpersonal skills, "to just start letting him work on projects in a more isolated fashion." Id. at 38. Around the same time, Brown spoke with John Schlich, the senior vice president of operations and manufacturing, about a more technical position for Vandegrift but the idea was "shot down." See James R. Brown Dep. at 43 (Docket No. 53, Ex. B).

  Vandegrift was terminated on February 21, 2002. He was fifty-nine years old.

  Stewart took over Vandegrift's responsibilities for about two to three months afterwards. Jay Oleksak ("Oleksak"), a mechanic, then asked Stewart if he could be given an opportunity to run the maintenance department. Stewart agreed and, in May 2002, Oleksak was given a ninety-day trial period to run the department. At that time, Oleksak had just turned forty. In August 2002, Oleksak was formally hired to fill Vandegrift's position.

  On May 24, 2002, Vandegrift filed a charge with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"), alleging that he was a victim of age discrimination. On September 11, 2002, Vandegrift cross-filed his EEOC charge with the Pennsylvania Human Rights Commission ("PHRC"). After receiving a right to sue letter from the EEOC, Vandegrift initiated this lawsuit on December 20, 2002. In Counts I and III, Vandegrift alleges violations of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, 29 U.S.C. § 623(a), and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, 43 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 955(a).*fn1 AECO moves for summary judgment as to Counts I and III. II. LEGAL STANDARD

  Summary judgment is appropriate "if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). The party moving for summary judgment has the initial burden of showing the basis for its motion. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). Once the movant adequately supports its motion pursuant to Rule 56(c), the burden shifts to the nonmoving party to go beyond the mere pleadings and present evidence through affidavits, depositions, or admissions on file showing a genuine issue of material fact for trial. See id. at 324. The substantive law determines which facts are material. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). If the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party, then there is a genuine issue of material fact. See id.

  When deciding a motion for summary judgment, all reasonable inferences are drawn in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. See Big Apple BMW, Inc. v. BMW of N. Am., Inc., 974 F.2d 1358, 1363 (3d Cir. 1992), cert. denied, 507 U.S. 912 (1993). Moreover, a court may not consider the credibility or weight of the evidence in deciding a motion for summary judgment, even if the quantity of the moving party's evidence far outweighs that of its opponent. See id. Nonetheless, a party opposing summary judgment must do more than just rest upon mere allegations, general denials, or vague statements. See Trap Rock Indus., Inc. v. Local 825, 982 F.2d 884, 890 (3d Cir. 1992).

  III. AGE DISCRIMINATION IN EMPLOYMENT ACT ("ADEA")

  The Age Discrimination in Employment Act prohibits employment discrimination against individuals over forty years old. See 29 U.S.C. § 631(a). It provides, in relevant part:

It shall be unlawful for an employer to . . . discharge any individual or otherwise discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual's age.
29 U.S.C. § 623(a).

  The McDonnell Douglas three-step burden shifting framework guides the analysis of discrimination claims under the ADEA. See Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Products, Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 142 (2000); Keller v. Orix Credit Alliance, Inc., 130 F.3d 1101, 1108 (3d Cir. 1997). First, the plaintiff must establish a prima facie case of discrimination. See Keller, 130 F.3d at 1108. Second, if the plaintiff makes such a showing, the burden shifts to the defendant to offer evidence to support a finding that it had a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for the adverse employment action. See Brewer v. Quaker State Oil Ref. Corp., 72 F.3d 326, 330 (3d Cir. 1995). If the defendant fails to meet this burden, the plaintiff prevails. If the defendant meets this burden, the third step is reached. The plaintiff must establish by a preponderance of the evidence that "the employer's proffered reasons were merely a pretext for discrimination, and not the real motivation for the unfavorable job action." Spence v. Acosta Sales and Mktg., No. 03-1437, 2004 WL 178221, at *3 (E.D. Pa. Jan. 21, 2004) (quoting Sarullo v. U.S. Postal Serv., 352 F.3d 789, 797 (3d Cir. 2003)).

 A. Prima Facie Case

  A prima facie case of age discrimination requires proof that the plaintiff (1) is over forty; (2) was discharged; (3) was qualified for the position; and (4) was replaced by a sufficiently younger person to create an inference of age discrimination. See Keller, 130 F.3d at 1108; Brewer, 72 F.3d at 330.

  AECO first argues that Vandegrift has failed to establish a prima facie case of age discrimination under the ADEA. The parties do not dispute that Vandegrift is over the age of forty nor that Vandegrift was terminated from his position. Whether or not Vandegrift has made out a prima facie case thus turns upon (1) whether he was qualified for the position, and (2) whether the circumstances surrounding his termination give rise to an inference of discrimination.

 1. Job Qualification

  Courts rely on an objective standard to determine if a plaintiff is "qualified" for the purposes of a prima facie discrimination claim. See Sempier v. Johnson & Higgins, 45 F.3d 724, 729 (3d Cir. 1995) (citing Weldon v. Kraft, Inc., 896 F.2d 793, 798 (3d Cir. 1990)); Williams-McCoy v. Starz Encore Group, No. 02-5125, 2004 WL 356198, at *4 (E.D. Pa. Feb. 5, 2004). Subjective factors such as leadership or management skills are better left to consideration of whether the employer's nondiscriminatory reason for discharge is pretextual. See Sempier, 45 F.3d at 729.

  AECO contends that Vandegrift was not qualified for the position of maintenance manager; under the McDonnell Douglas framework, Vandegrift must establish that he was qualified.

  The maintenance manager's primary responsibilities are to oversee a preventive maintenance program and to lead his team when breakdowns and repairs are needed. It is undisputed that Vandegrift's technical expertise and knowledge with respect to the machines were sound and that he performed well in the special projects. As a manager, Vandegrift was also successful in reducing the hazardous waste output at the plant and, on one occasion, saved AECO a substantial amount of money in a machine purchase.

  On the other hand, Vandegrift was criticized for his interpersonal and communication skills. However, subjective factors, which encompass interpersonal skills, are better left to the pretext stage of the McDonnell Douglas analysis. See Sempier, 45 F.3d at 729; Weldon, 896 F.2d at 798. Thus, the Court finds for the purposes of the prima facie case that Vandegrift was qualified for the job.

  2. Inference of Age Discrimination

  The fourth element of the prima facie test requires that the employee replacing the fired employee be "sufficiently younger." See Lawrence v. Nat'l Westminster Bank N.J., 98 F.3d 61, 66 (3d Cir. 1996); Sempier, 45 F.3d at 729. While no particular age difference must be shown, "it is generally accepted that when the difference in age between the employee and his . . . replacement is fewer than five or six years, the replacement is not considered `sufficiently younger,' and thus no prima facie case is made." Gutknecht v. SmithKline Beecham Clinial Labs., Inc., 950 F. Supp. 667, 672 (E.D. Pa. 1996); see Sempier, 45 F.3d at 729 (four year difference not sufficiently younger); Gray v. York Newspapers, Inc., 957 F.2d 1070, 1087 (3d Cir. 1992) (one year difference is not sufficiently younger); Hill v. Bethlehem Steel Corp., 729 F. Supp. 1071, 1074 n.5 (E.D. Pa. 1989) (seven years difference and six years difference was not sufficiently younger).

  In this case, Vandegrift was fifty-nine years old when he was terminated. His replacement, Oleksak, was forty years old. This difference of nineteen years is sufficient to satisfy the fourth prong of a prima facie case by raising an inference of discrimination. See Ashby v. Hanger Prosthetics & Orthotics, Inc., No. 02-630, 2003 WL 22797562, at *3 (E.D. Pa. Nov. 7, 2003) (nineteen year difference sufficiently younger). Vandegrift has thus established a prima facie case of discrimination.

 B. Pretext

  AECO has articulated a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for Vandegrift's termination: poor performance. Vandegrift now has the burden to show that AECO's articulated reason was merely a pretext for its discriminatory action. To do this, Vandegrift must submit evidence sufficient for a factfinder to "either (1) disbelieve the employer's articulated legitimate reasons; or (2) believe that an invidious discriminatory reason was more likely than not a motivating or determinative cause of the employer's action." Keller, 130 F.3d at 1108 (quoting Fuentes v. Perskie, 32 F.3d 759, 763 (3d Cir. 1994)). To establish pretext under the first approach, a plaintiff must demonstrate such "weaknesses, implausibilities, inconsistencies, incoherencies, or contradictions in the employer's proffered legitimate reasons for its action that a reasonable factfinder could rationally find them unworthy of credence." Fuentes, 32 F.3d at 765.

  Viewing the facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, Vandegrift has raised sufficient issues of material fact to defeat AECO's summary judgment motion. AECO contends that it terminated Vandegrift because of his communication problems and resulting poor performance as a maintenance manager. In support, AECO points to a handful of instances since 1998 where tension arose between Vandegrift and his team members. On the other hand, Vandegrift has worked in the envelope industry for approximately twenty years and has served as a facility maintenance manager of an envelope plant for approximately ten years. His technical knowledge is undisputed. Vandegrift has also worked hard to respond to a new management's expectations, seeking help when warranted and doing his best in the face of an increasing workload and personnel shortage. Under these circumstances, Vandegrift has raised sufficient questions such that a reasonable factfinder could disbelieve AECO's articulated legitimate reason. Accordingly, summary judgment is denied as to Vandegrift's ADEA claim.

 

IV. PENNSYLVANIA HUMAN RELATIONS ACT ("PHRA")
  Defendant AECO also asserts that Vandegrift is time-barred because he did not timely file his charge of discrimination with the PHRC. Like the ADEA, the PHRA prohibits the discrimination of an individual because of that individual's age. See 43 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 955(a). The PHRA requires the complainant to file an administrative charge with the PHRC within 180 days of the alleged discrimination.*fn2 See 43 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 959(h); Burgh, 251 F.3d at 475. If the complainant fails to file a timely complaint with the PHRC, then he is precluded from judicial remedies under the PHRA. See Woodson v. Scott Paper Co., 103 F.3d 913, 925 (3d Cir. 1997).

  Vandegrift's employment at AECO ended on February 21, 2002. Vandegrift did not file an administrative charge with the PHRC until September 11, 2002, 202 days later. Since Vandegrift's PHRA charge was filed outside the 180-day statutory period, Vandegrift's claim under the PHRA is untimely. See Zysk v. FFE Minerals USA Inc. f/I/a FFEM-USA, 225 F. Supp.2d 482, 493 (E.D. Pa. 2001) (dismissing plaintiff's PHRA claim as untimely because the charges were filed more than 180 days after the alleged discriminatory act occurred). Accordingly, Vandegrift's PHRA claim is time-barred.

  V. CONCLUSION

  For the reasons stated above, summary judgment is denied as to Plaintiff's ADEA claim (Count I) and granted in favor of Defendant as to Plaintiff's PHRA claim (Count III).

  An appropriate Order follows.

  ORDER

  AND NOW, this 6th day of April, 2004, upon consideration of Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Docket No. 42), Plaintiff's response (Docket No. 53), Defendant's reply (Docket No. 58), and Plaintiff's sur-response thereto (Docket No. 64), and for the reasons set forth in the accompanying Memorandum, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that Defendant's Motion is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART as follows:

(1) Summary judgment is DENIED as to Count I; and
(2) Summary judgment is GRANTED as to Count III.


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