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Eason v. Del Monte Foods

September 14, 2006


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ambrose, Chief District Judge


In this civil action, Plaintiff claims that Defendant, her former employer, violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII"), 42 U.S.C. § 2000 et seq., the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act ("PHRA"), 43 Pa. P.S. § 951, et seq., and the Equal Pay Act, 29 U.S.C. § 206 (d), by discriminating against her based on her gender and race, and retaliation for complaining to management about her work situation.*fn1

Plaintiff also claims that she suffered hostile work environment harassment.

In particular, Plaintiff claims racial discrimination in the failure to promote, hire, or interview her for several positions, her assignment of job title, and the amount of her compensation. She also claims gender discrimination with respect to failure to hire, as well as compensation. Finally, she claims illegal retaliation for writing intra-office complaints, and hostile work environment harassment in the nature of, for example, exclusion from meetings and removal of equipment from her office.

Before the Court is Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment on all of Plaintiff's claims.*fn2 Defendant argues that Plaintiff's claims fail at either the prima facie stage or otherwise. Plaintiff counters, primarily, that the evidence demonstrates that Defendant's proffered reasons for its actions are pretextual.

For the following reasons, Defendant's Motion will be granted in part and denied in part.


Unless otherwise noted, the following facts are undisputed. Moreover, several facts, immaterial for summary judgment purposes, are included by way of background.

Plaintiff, an African-American woman, began working for H.J. Heinz Company ("Heinz") in March of 2000 as a Fish Settlement Accountant. On June 13, 2002, Heinz entered into an agreement with Defendant, pursuant to which certain Heinz units and brands would be spun off and merged into a subsidiary of Defendant. In 2002, Plaintiff spoke with her supervisor about wanting to do something new in the new environment. Her supervisor conveyed her interest to John Balbach. Defendant's documents reflect that Plaintiff received a four percent raise in August of 2002, but Plaintiff testifies that she did not receive such a raise.

Soon thereafter, Plaintiff accepted Balbach's offer to become a Co-Pack Accountant in the post-acquisition company. She reported directly to Balbach when she first began as Co-Pack Accountant. At the time that Plaintiff accepted the position, Anita Sutara, a white female, was the only other person slated to hold a CoPack Accounting position. According to her offer letter, Plaintiff's transition into that position was to become effective September 1, 2002, but Defendant's business records indicate that she transitioned into the position effective October 1, 2002.

In August of 2002, Balbach notified Steve Reyburn, another supervisor, that he planned to upgrade one of the Co-Pack Accountant positions to Co-Pack Analyst, and planned to place Sutara in the position.*fn3 He planned to do this, he stated, because certain additional responsibilities, including forecasting, would be added to that position. On September 9, 2002, a Personnel Action Notice ("PAN") was prepared for Sutara. There is a note on the PAN "Chg job title per Frank Balint 10/3/02 SK." It indicates "status change" in "job title" and "promotion.""Current position" is listed as Co-Pack Accountant, and proposed position is listed as Co-Pack Analyst, with a line through the term "Co-Pack" and "Financial" written above it. The facts submitted by the parties do not indicate Balint's identity or significance; nor do they clarify all of the notations on the PAN.

Subsequently, as an incentive to get Sutara to stay in Balbach's department, in October, 2002, she was promoted to a Financial Analyst position and received a five percent raise. Plaintiff testified that she heard Balbach tell Sutara that she was going to have the best of both worlds; a new title but the same position.*fn4

On December 20, 2002, Plaintiff asked Balbach whether her title, like Sutara's, would also be changing; Balbach responded that Sutara's title had changed because she would be taking on new responsibilities. Balbach told Plaintiff and others that Plaintiff and Sutara did not perform the same duties as Plaintiff. After she became a Financial Analyst, however, Sutara's job duties remained unchanged, and that she continued to perform the same duties as Plaintiff.

In 2003, Defendant developed a new compensation structure and developed a process known as "harmonization," by which James Kennedy, Manager of Compensation, took former salary midpoints from Heinz, and mathematically found the closest numeric match for Defendant's midpoints, then found the corresponding job grade. Because of this mechanical process, an inaccuracy in a Heinz midpoint would lead to an incorrect salary grade under the new compensation system. Balbach was not involved in the harmonization process.

Kennedy testified that a data entry error at Heinz resulted in the wrong job code for Sutara on her PAN, with the incorrect midpoint. Plaintiff counters that the incorrect grade level was not a data entry error, but was done at Balint's instruction. Sutara's last documented Heinz salary midpoint corresponded to a grade 12 at Defendant, and Sutara told Plaintiff of her salary grade level. By e-mail dated September 12, 2003, Plaintiff advised Human Resources that she wanted her job title to be reevaluated; Plaintiff was referred to her manager. At some point, Balbach observed that Sutara's grade level looked high; he was ultimately informed that grade level changes would have to go through a process of writing job descriptions and submitting them for review. On October 2, 2003, Balbach requested everyone in his department to write and submit to him job descriptions. Plaintiff and Sutara both did so; Plaintiff did so on or about November 7, 2003.

In September of 2003, Plaintiff received a one percent merit increase because she was rated as a "contributor," which was the lowest of Defendant's employee evaluation tiers. In or about September of 2003, Defendant had compressed Heinz's five-tier evaluation system into a three-tier system. Supervisors were required to adapt ratings previously made under the five-tier system, and compress them into one of the three tiers. The three-tier system utilized forced distributions; evaluators were required to place a certain percentage of employees into each tier, including the lowest "contributor" rating. In July of 2003, Plaintiff's rating under the Heinz system had been 2.88, on the low end of the "meets" standard, which ranged from 2.70 to 3.69. A white male in the finance department was rated a "contributor," like Plaintiff, and received a one percent merit increase in 2003. Plaintiff does not claim that this rating was discriminatory. Sutara also had a "meets expectations" rating under the Heinz system, but Sutara received a larger raise - $1400.00 versus Plaintiff's $400.00 raise.*fn5 Steve Reyburn made the decision about Plaintiff's raise, but Balbach gave him some input.

By February of 2004, Human Resources determined that Plaintiff and Sutara were performing essentially the same functions. Kennedy then conducted a market evaluation of the position in order to determine a salary grade level, and determined that he could support a grade 10 or 11. Thereafter, Plaintiff was told that her grade was being increased, and Sutara's decreased, to a grade 11. Lisa Sennett, a Human Resources employee, knew within five minutes that Plaintiff and Sutara were performing the same job duties. Kennedy was not aware of Plaintiff's race at the time of his evaluation.

On or about February 16, 2004, Plaintiff wrote to Dick Muto, Vice President of Human Resources for Defendant, and complained that her manager created a hostile work environment, in that he was not "cordial" and "may have a personal issue with her." She also noted that he would ignore her when she spoke with him, and further advised that Balbach had a lumbar chair removed from her office. On April 1, 2004, Muto requested an investigation into the matter.

On or about March 25, 2004, Jeanine Very, a Supervisor, met with Plaintiff, Sutara, and Heather Kolesar regarding a realignment of duties.*fn6 Plaintiff was given several of Sutara's accounts, because Sutara was to take on other duties. An April 5 e-mail from Very followed up on the meeting, and attached an assignment of duties. The realignment of duties was, Very said, in connection with transition to taking on San Francisco co-pack operations. Very acknowledged that the realignment was subject to change, once the new tasks were understood. Neither Sutara nor Plaintiff ever actually took on the additional duties. Further, Plaintiff never suffered any backlash for not taking on additional duties.

Plaintiff again wrote to Muto on March 31, 2004, complaining that the realignment of duties was retaliatory, and constituted harassment. She also sent an April 23, 2004 e-mail to Chris Nettleton, stating her belief that she was being harassed, due to the reassignment of duties.

In addition to the above facts, this matter involves a series of positions for which Plaintiff was not promoted or hired. Del Monte procedures state that a position will be posted for at least two weeks, and also states to employees, "apply within 15 business days of the posting date."

Plaintiff first avers that she, rather than Jeanine Very, was qualified for Supervisor of Co-Pack Accounting. At the time the position was filled, Very had more than two years of experience as a Senior Inventory Accountant in the Finance Department. A manager is free to fill a position without posting it, but they should consult with human resources. Balbach believed that Very had the necessary experience, knowledge, and qualifications for a supervisor position; she had experience as a Senior Inventory Accountant, had worked closely with Balbach, and dealt with co-packers. Balbach testified that Very's accounting experience in plants and distribution centers readily translated into co-pack accounting, because both involve manufacturing processes performed by entities that are not company owned. Balbach did not consider Plaintiff for the position because he did not feel that she was ready to advance at that time. Plaintiff does not aver that she applied for the Supervisor position.

Plaintiff also believes that she, rather than successful candidate Patty DeBonis, was qualified for a Co-Pack Analyst, Associate III position. Plaintiff asserts that the position was posted on February 24, 2004; Defendant asserts that the position was posted on February 6, 2004, and modified on February 24, 2004.*fn7 Defendant's written procedures authorize a two-week posting as well as a 15-business-day application period for employees. The job was first offered to Bridget Uhrig, who had applied for a Co-Pack Analyst position on February 9, 2004, and whose resume was sent to hiring managers on February 22, 2004. She was interviewed on March 2, 2004, and declined ...

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