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VANDEGRIFT v. ATLANTIC ENVELOPE CO.

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 ...


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