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Aretz v. Plastikos

March 6, 2009

PETER J. ARETZ, PLAINTIFF,
v.
PLASTIKOS, INC., DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: McLAUGHLIN, Sean J., J.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Presently pending before the Court is the Defendant, Plastikos, Inc.'s Motion for Summary Judgment.

I. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff, Peter J. Aretz ("Aretz" or "Plaintiff"), was employed by Defendant, Plastikos, Inc., ("Plastikos" or "Defendant"), a manufacturing company, from January 1, 2004 to March 31, 2006 as a manufacturing manager. Pl. Ex. J, Aretz Dep. p. 16; Def. Ex. D, Mead Dep. p. 37. Plastikos is a custom injection molder of thermal plastic components with its headquarters located in Erie, Pennsylvania and employs between 80 and 90 employees in its sales, engineering and manufacturing departments. Pl. Ex. J, Aretz Dep. p. 17; Pl. Ex. Q, Mead Dep. p. 14. The stock of Plastikos was owned by William Fogleboch ("Fogleboch"), Tim Katen ("Katen") and David Mead ("Mead"). Pl. Ex. Q, Mead Dep. p. 15. Plaintiff was 44 years old at the time he was hired. Pl. Ex. J, Aretz Dep. p. 16. Fogleboch and Katen were 56 years old and Mead was 60 years old. Pl. Ex. J, Aretz Dep. p. 16. Plaintiff reported directly to Fogleboch, who was the General Manager of the plant and responsible for its day-to-day operations, who in turn reported to the other owners, Katen and Mead. Pl. Ex. A, Aretz Dep. p. 18.

The record reflects that during his tenure, the Plaintiff was involved in several confrontations with other employees. On February 27, 2004, Plaintiff became involved in a shouting match with an employee named Frank Doliver ("Doliver"), the Defendant's maintenance manager. Def. Ex. D, Mead Dep. p. 18. Fogleboch observed the incident and brought it to a stop. Def. Ex. L; Pl. Ex. N, Doliver Dep. p. 48. He memorialized this incident on an Employee Disciplinary Notice form with respect to Plaintiff. Def. Ex. L; Pl. Ex. N. Doliver testified that he and Plaintiff fought several times per week and that he thought about quitting on numerous occasions. Def. Ex. J, Doliver Dep. p. 18. The day before Plaintiff was terminated, Doliver and Plaintiff had another heated exchange which Doliver reported to Katen. Pl. Ex. N. Doliver Dep. pp. 17; 24.

A few months later, the Plaintiff and Mark DeHaven ("DeHaven"), the Defendant's sales manager, became engaged in a conversation which, according to the Plaintiff, was "loud on both parts." Def. Ex. B, Aretz Dep. pp. 43-44. Once again, Fogleboch brought the confrontation to an end and prepared another Employee Disciplinary Notice form dated April 9, 2004 relative to Plaintiff's conduct. Def. Ex. B, Aretz Dep. pp. 43-44; Pl. Ex. A. DeHaven described his relationship with Plaintiff as "strained" at the beginning of Plaintiff's employment and informed Fogleboch on several occasions that if he had to report directly to Plaintiff he would resign. Def. Ex. I, DeHaven Dep. pp. 7; 15. He also advised Katen at one point that Plaintiff was "bringing the morale down of the company." Def. Ex. I, DeHaven Dep. p. 19.

Plaintiff also had confrontations with Dwayne Belden ("Belden"), who described Plaintiff's management style as "my way or the highway." Def. Ex. F, Belden Dep. p. 10; Def. Ex. B, Aretz Dep. P. 45. Belden informed Katen that it was his opinion that the Plaintiff was treating people poorly and that the company had lost a number of employees due to Plaintiff's management style. Def. Ex. F, Belden Dep. pp. 28-29. On at least one occasion in December 2004, Fogleboch counseled Plaintiff with respect to his treatment of Belden and advised him that he was the "root of many of the morale problems at Plastikos" and directed him to "treat everyone as if they were a customer." Pl. Ex. G. Although Plaintiff could not recall the specifics of that particular meeting with Fogleboch, he testified that he had more than one conversation with both Belden and Fogleboch regarding "communication" and acknowledged that he had arguments or altercations with Belden. Def. Ex. B, Aretz Dep. pp. 51-52; Def. Ex. E, Aretz Dep. p. 45. He also conceded that Fogleboch counseled him concerning the proper treatment of employees. Def. Ex. B, Aretz Dep. p. 51.*fn1

According to Mead, all three owners met with Plaintiff on several occasions and informed him that they did not approve of both his management style and/or treatment of employees. Def. Ex. D, Mead Dep. pp. 16-17. Mead claimed that while the Plaintiff promised to "do better," his management style did not improve. Def. Ex. D, Mead Dep. p. 17. Katen testified that towards the end of Plaintiff's employment, he heard several different stories and "grumblings" about Plaintiff and questioned Belden about it. Def. Ex. E, Katen Dep. pp. 39-40. Belden informed him that there were a lot of problems with Plaintiff's management style, including his use of vulgar language towards employees. Def. Ex. E, Katen Dep. pp. 38-39.

Katen testified that all three owners discussed terminating Plaintiff approximately twelve months prior to his actual termination date because they were unhappy with his management style. Def. Ex. E, Katen Dep. p. 25. Rather than terminating the Plaintiff, the owners decided to see if the Plaintiff's performance improved. Def. Ex. D, Mead Dep. 15; Def. Ex. G; Def. Ex. E, Katen Dep. pp. 31-32; 59-60. They placed him on informal probation, although the Plaintiff was not advised of that fact. Def. Ex. D, Mead Dep. 15; Def. Ex. G; Def. Ex. E, Katen Dep. pp. 31-32; 59-60.

Shortly before the Plaintiff's termination, the Plaintiff reported that an employee named Chris Stewart ("Stewart") had "been out of line with him." Def. Ex. C, Fogleboch Dep. p. 50. Fogleboch considered the Plaintiff's description of Stewart's behavior out of character for him because he considered Stewart to be a "very gentle, soft-spoken young man." Pl. Ex. O, Fogleboch Dep. pp. 50-51. On the heels of this incident, Fogleboch decided to interview ten employees in order to determine whether the problems with the Plaintiff's management style persisted. Def. Ex. C, Fogleboch Dep. p. 20; Def. Ex. K pp. PLA0068; PLA0070. Broadly speaking, these interviews suggested to Fogleboch continued dissatisfaction on the part of employees with Plaintiff's management style. Def. Ex. K pp. PLA0068; PLA0070; Pl. Ex. O, Fogleboch Dep. pp. 96-97; Def. Ex. C, Fogleboch Dep. pp. 91-92. At the conclusion of the interview process, Fogleboch, Mead and Katen collectively made the decision to terminate Plaintiff. Pl. Ex. O, Fogleboch Dep. pp. 96-97; Def. Ex. D, Mead Dep. p. 38; Pl. Ex. P, Katen Dep. pp. 38-40; 61. He was officially terminated on March 31, 2006 and was advised at that time he was being terminated for "his inability to work with, and get along with employees under his direct supervision at Plastikos, Inc." Def. Ex. M.

Following Plaintiff's termination, Plastikos spread Plaintiff's duties among various individuals while interviewing candidates to replace him. Def. Ex. D, Mead Dep. p. 57. Robert Cooney ("Cooney"), a Plastikos employee, applied from within the company and was ultimately hired for the position. Def. Ex. D, Mead Dep. p. 57.

As a result of his termination, Plaintiff brought suit pursuant to the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, as amended, (the "ADEA"), 29 U.S.C. § 621 et seq. and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, (the "PHRA"), 43 P.S. § 951 et seq. Defendant has moved for summary judgment with respect to both claims.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Summary judgment is proper "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 judgment as a matter of law."

Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). In order to withstand a motion for summary judgment, the non-moving party must "make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of [each] element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). In evaluating whether the non-moving party has established each necessary element, the Court must grant all reasonable inferences from the evidence to the non-moving party. Knabe v. Boury Corp., 114 F.3d 407, 410, n.4 (3d Cir. 1997) (citing Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574 (1986)). A factual dispute is "material" only if it might affect the outcome of the case. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). "Where the record taken as a whole could not lead a reasonable trier of fact to find for the non-moving party, there is no 'genuine issue for trial.'" Id. (quoting Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 587).

III. DISCUSSION

Under the ADEA, it is 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)(1). The PHRA has a similar prohibition against age discrimination in employment. 43 P.S. § 955(a). "The same legal standard applies to a claim under the PHRA as applies to an ADEA claim." Hill v. Borough of Kutztown, 455 F.3d 225, 247 (3rd Cir. 2006). For simplicity's sake, I will refer only to the ADEA.

Plaintiff's claims are analyzed pursuant to the familiar burden-shifting test articulated in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 802 (1973), and further refined in Texas Dept. of Community Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248, 252-53, (1981), and St. Mary's Honor Ctr. v. Hicks, 509 U.S. 502 (1983). Under McDonnell Douglas and its progeny, the plaintiff has the initial burden of establishing a prima facie case of discrimination, the substance of which will vary depending on the type of claim; if the plaintiff is successful, the employer must then articulate a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the adverse employment decision. Goosby v. Johnson & Johnson Medical, Inc., 228 F.3d 313, 319 (3rd Cir. 2000); Krouse v. American Sterilizer Co., 126 F.3d 494, 500 (3rd Cir. 1997). If the employer proffers a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for its action, the plaintiff must then demonstrate that the proffered reason was merely a pretext for unlawful discrimination. Goosby, 228 F.3d at 319, citing Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Products Inc., 530 U.S. 133 (2000); Pivirotto v. Innovative Systems, Inc., 191 F.3d 344, 352 n.4 (3rd Cir. 1999).

For the purposes of this Motion, Defendant does not dispute that Plaintiff has made out a prima facie case of age discrimination related to his termination in March 2006. See Memorandum in Support p. 9. Defendant argues, however, that summary judgment is appropriate due to the Plaintiff's failure to raise a triable issue of fact with respect to pretext. I therefore confine my analysis accordingly.

In order to survive Defendant's summary judgment motion, I must determine whether Plaintiff has pointed to some evidence "from which a factfinder could reasonably 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." Stanziale v. Jargowsky, 200 ...


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