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Franckowiak v. Conagra Foods, Inc.

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

June 21, 2017


         Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment, ECF No. 37 - Denied


          JOSEPH F. LEESON, JR. United States District Judge

         I. Introduction

         Joel G. Franckowiak claims that his former employer, Conagra Foods, Inc., terminated him because of his age, in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (PHRA). Conagra has moved for summary judgment. It contends that Franckowiak did not possess the objective knowledge and skills that Conagra requires of its maintenance managers and that he is therefore unable to make out a prima facie claim of age discrimination. Conagra also contends that even if Franckowiak can make out a prima facie claim of age discrimination, he has failed to present sufficient evidence for a jury to conclude that the legitimate reasons that it has offered for its employment decisions were a pretext to discriminate against him. Because the Court finds that Franckowiak has presented sufficient evidence for a jury to find in his favor, Conagra's motion is denied.

         II. Background

         The following facts are either undisputed or viewed in the light most favorable to Franckowiak, the non-moving party.[1]

         A. Franckowiak's work at the Womelsdorf Plant and Conagra's 2013 acquisition of the plant

         In 1971, Franckowiak began working for Linette Quality Chocolates (“Linette QC”), which at that time was a small, family-owned company. Def.'s Facts ¶¶ 3-4. In 1985, Linette QC promoted Franckowiak to the position of maintenance manager at its plant in Womelsdorf, Pennsylvania. Def.'s Facts ¶ 7. In 2000, Linette QC was acquired by Ralcorp Holdings, Inc. (“Ralcorp”). Def.'s Facts ¶ 10, after which Franckowiak was promoted to “maintenance manager slash plant engineer” for the Womelsdorf Plant. Pl.'s Dep. 26:8-9, ECF No. 37-7.

         In January 2013, Conagra completed its purchase of Ralcorp for $4.95 billion. Def.'s Facts ¶ 12. As part of that sale, Conagra acquired the Womelsdorf Plant. Def.'s Facts ¶ 13. As an employee that Conagra inherited from its existing workforce, Franckowiak was neither hired nor promoted into his then-current position by Conagra. Def.'s Facts ¶ 15. After Conagra acquired the Womelsdorf Plant, Franckowiak's title changed slightly from “senior manager maintenance and engineering” to “manager plant engineering.” Pl.'s Facts ¶ 15, ECF No. 40-2. Conagra employed Franckowiak from the time it acquired the Womelsdorf Plant in early 2013 until Franckowiak's discharge in February 2015. Def.'s Facts ¶ 14. At the time of Franckowiak's discharge, he was 61 years old. See Pl.'s Facts ¶ 1.

         B. Franckowiak's job duties and chain of command

         When Franckowiak worked for Linette QC as the maintenance manager, he managed the maintenance department, handled environmental permitting, and purchased the parts for the maintenance department. Def.'s Facts ¶ 26. After Ralcorp's acquisition of the plant, Franckowiak was assigned the added responsibility of serving as the plant engineer on capital projects. Def.'s Facts ¶ 30. Later, after Conagra acquired the plant, Franckowiak was assigned responsibility for receiving parts that had been ordered. Def.'s Facts ¶ 31. In all, by 2015 Franckowiak was responsible for being the maintenance manager and plant engineer, as well as handling environmental permitting, purchasing parts, receiving parts, snow-plowing, and salting the parking lots. Pl.'s Facts ¶ 19.

         As the maintenance manager, Franckowiak reported to the manager of the Womelsdorf Plant, Robert Bard. Def.'s Facts ¶ 18. Bard joined the Womelsdorf Plant as plant manager in late 2012, just prior to Conagra's acquisition of the plant. Def.'s Facts ¶ 19. Bard became a Conagra employee as a result of Conagra's acquisition of the Womelsdorf Plant. Def.'s Facts ¶ 20. During the relevant time period, Bard reported to Tim Lethcoe, the Vice President of Operations. Def.'s Facts ¶ 22. As the VP of Operations, Lethcoe supported numerous plants, including the Womelsdorf Plant. Def.'s Facts ¶ 24.

         C. Maintenance management

         As maintenance manager, Franckowiak utilized a “paper-driven” maintenance program, which included drafting and tracking work orders by hand. Def.'s Facts ¶ 33. Prior to Conagra's acquisition of the Womelsdorf Plant, Franckowiak was never required to, or evaluated based on his ability to implement, a computerized maintenance management system or a computerized inventory management system. Def.'s Facts ¶¶ 39-40.

         During its ownership of the Womelsdorf Plant, Ralcorp purchased a computerized maintenance management system (“CMMS”) made by J.D. Edwards (“JDE”). Def.'s Facts ¶ 34.[2]The JDE CMMS is an on-line (or cloud-based) software solution that could be accessed by authorized users from any computer connected to Ralcorp's (and later, Conagra's) network, including the computers in the Womelsdorf Plant. Def.'s Facts ¶ 35.[3] From early on in his time with Ralcorp, Franckowiak was an authorized user with access to the JDE CMMS, and he regularly used the purchase-order system component of the JDE software. Def.'s Facts ¶¶ 36-37.[4] Franckowiak's access to and use of the JDE system for purchase-order purposes also included access to the system's maintenance program capabilities (e.g., the JDE work order system and equipment management system). Def.'s Facts ¶ 38.[5]

         D. Preventive maintenance

         Lethcoe testified that, as part of their normal operations, Conagra's plants use data-driven preventive maintenance programs. Def.'s Facts ¶ 44.[6] During Franckowiak's employment as maintenance manager at Womelsdorf, the plant's maintenance department performed preventive maintenance based on Franckowiak's knowledge of machine use and based on a paper-based machine operator feedback system, rather than in accordance with any computerized data analytics. Def.'s Facts ¶ 45.

         According to Lethcoe, in order to determine whether a plant's maintenance system is performing well, Conagra tracks and analyzes maintenance data as part of its normal operations. Def.'s Facts ¶ 46.[7] Certain maintenance data is referred to as maintenance Key Performance Indicators (“KPIs”). Def.'s Facts ¶ 47; see Pl.'s Resp. Def.'s Facts ¶ 47. Prior to Conagra's acquisition of the Womelsdorf Plant, Franckowiak did not measure any maintenance performance metrics. Pl.'s Dep. 185:23-186:2, ECF No. 37-7.

         According to Lethcoe, even before Conagra acquired the Womelsdorf Plant, Conagra required its maintenance managers to possess, among other things, the skills and knowledge necessary to: (1) implement a data-driven preventative maintenance program; (2) implement a computerized maintenance management system (“CMMS”); and (3) manage a maintenance department using key performance indicators by understanding, tracking, and utilizing relevant maintenance and production data. Def.'s Facts ¶ 50.[8]

         E. Franckowiak's 2013 performance review

         In his 2013 performance review, Franckowiak received an overall rating of “Consistently Fulfills, ” which is the middle of five possible ratings.[9] 2013 Review, ECF No. 37-9. At the time of the 2013 review, Bard had been plant manager for eight months and Conagra had owned the plant for less than six months. Def.'s Facts ¶ 52; Pl.'s Resp. Def.'s Facts ¶ 52. Because of the incomplete transition from Ralcorp's systems to Conagra's systems, aspects of Franckowiak's scores in the 2013 review were tied to the performance of the plant's management team as a whole. Def.'s Facts ¶ 53; Pl.'s Resp. Def.'s Facts ¶ 53. In the 2013 performance review, Bard instructed Franckowiak to put into place a computerized maintenance management system, to use data to manage parts inventories, worker orders, and labor allocation, and to update his knowledge and application of maintenance leadership. Def.'s Facts ¶ 54.

         F. Bard's alleged discussion with Franckowiak concerning Bard's plans to retire

         According to Franckowiak, in the early summer of 2014, Bard made comments to Franckowiak about his (Bard's) retirement plans during a discussion about investments. Def.'s Facts ¶ 63. Specifically, Franckowiak testified that Bard said the following: “I don't know what your plans are, by 55 I plan on being laying [sic] on the beach somewhere.” Def.'s Facts ¶ 64. According to Franckowiak, he replied to Bard that he did not plan to retire until he was at least 66. Def.'s Facts ¶ 65; Pl.'s Resp. Def.'s Facts ¶ 65.

         G. Franckowiak's 2014 Performance Management Process (“PMP”) review

         Conagra's Performance Management Process (“PMP”) evaluates its managerial employees based on their performance over Conagra's fiscal year, which runs from June 1 to May 31. Def.'s Facts ¶ 68. According to Robbyn Linville, who served as Conagra's Director of Human Resources from 2013 to 2016, because of the change in ownership of the Womelsdorf Plant, FY 2014 was the only year when Franckowiak's evaluation occurred under Conagra's PMP system. Def.'s Facts ¶ 70; Linville Aff. ¶ 7, ECF No. 37-8.

         According to Linville, as part of the PMP employees are provided goals at the start of a fiscal year and then, at the end of the fiscal year in June, are assigned a rating for each of the goals, as well as an overall rating. Def.'s Facts ¶ 73. Linville testified that for the FY 2014 PMP, there were five possible ratings, based on whether the employee met his or her expectations: “Meets, ” “Meets ” (“Meets Plus”), “Meets-” (“Meets Minus”), and two other ratings that were available but rarely used. Def.'s Facts ¶ 74.[10]

         In summer 2014, [11] Bard completed Franckowiak's FY 2014 PMP, giving Franckowiak an overall rating of “Meets-”.[12] 2014 FY PMP, ECF Nos. 37-10, 37-11. In addition to this overall rating, Franckowiak received five “Meets-” ratings and two “Meets” ratings for his seven objectives. Id. In the review, Bard instructed Franckowiak to benchmark best practices with other plants, to improve his preventative maintenance system, to employ servant leadership, and to implement measurable and sustainable changes in maintenance. Def.'s Facts ¶ 77. Bard's concluding comments in the review are as follows:

Joel did meet expectations in his implementation of [several] key initiatives . . . . FY14 was a challenging year for the team, as we experienced significant first pass quality issues coupled with a huge spike in Costco demand, the induction of new team members, and unfavorable plant performance. Joel was able to navigate through this adversity and keep his team afloat. However in FY15 Joel must implement measurable and sustainable change in maintenance to build a long term foundation for plant success. The underlying theme to Joel's performance expectations in the coming year is to deliver results. He has my full confidence and support in driving this change.

2014 FY PMP.

         H. The August 2014 Conagra Performance System (“CPS”) team visit

         The Conagra Performance System (“CPS”) is Conagra's continuous improvement system that identifies the various “pillars” that make up a successful production plant and assigns a leader to each pillar who is responsible for tracking and driving improvement in the KPI data for that pillar. Def.'s Facts ¶ 95. In August 2014, a team of Conagra CPS experts came to Womelsdorf to try to help the plant with problems it was experiencing. Def.'s Facts ¶ 96; Pl.'s Dep. 192:20-23.

         Following the visit, John Munjas, a member of the CPS team, sent to Bard a draft report of the results of the visit. See Pl.'s Resp. Def.'s Mot. Ex. GG, ECF No. 40-36. The draft report identified several tasks for which Womelsdorf Plant employees were responsible and, for each task, identified a “target timing” for completion and a particular employee responsible for “accountability.” Id.

         Franckowiak was listed as the accountability employee for several tasks, including the requirement to “initiate PMs [preventive maintenance] on Line 6 enrober using Excel or JDE, ” with a target timing of August 22, 2014. Id. The draft report also listed several “key agenda items & discussion points” for various aspects of the plant. Id. With respect to maintenance, the report observed a “[l]ack of automated inventory & work order systems” and stated the following: “Plant expectations: work order system and PM [preventive maintenance] plan to be developed in the next 30 days.” Id.

         Franckowiak testified that, following the visit and the resulting report, he told Bard that he “didn't have the tools or the manpower” to implement a preventive maintenance program. Pl.'s Dep. 207:15-17. Bard testified that, as maintenance manager, Franckowiak was ultimately responsible for correcting the maintenance deficiencies identified in the CPS visit. Bard Dec. ¶ 19, ECF No. 37-14.

         I. Bard's alleged comments to Livinghouse and Hetrich

         In June of 2014, Conagra hired Colleen Livinghouse to serve as the safety and human resources manager at the Womelsdorf Plant. Def.'s Facts ¶ 160. Conagra eliminated her position in January 2015, and she does not feel she was treated fairly by Conagra. Def.'s Facts ¶¶ 162-63.

         Livinghouse testified that, at some point during her employment, Bard called her and Ricky Hetrich, another Conagra employee, into Bard's office for a meeting and informed them that he wanted to terminate Franckowiak and Charles Rightmyer, a production supervisor at the Womelsdorf Plant, because they were not performing their jobs well, they were employees Bard had inherited from the original owners of the Womelsdorf Plant, they were “old dinosaurs” and the plant needed “fresh blood, ” and Franckowiak was paid a high salary that was almost as much as Bard's. Def.'s Facts ¶¶ 164-66. Livinghouse also testified that Bard told her and Hetrich that he wanted to place Franckowiak and Rightmyer on PIPs where there was no room for them to succeed. Def.'s Facts ¶ 168.

         Livinghouse ultimately was not involved in the drafting, implementation, or administration of Franckowiak's PIP. Def.'s Facts ¶ 171. She did play a role in implementing Rightmyer's PIP, the contents of which, she testified, were essentially dictated to her by Bard, and she acknowledged that the requirements of Rightmyer's PIP were not so impossible that he could not meet them. Livinghouse Dep. 150:7-11, 197:8-18. She testified that she signed Rightmyer's PIP “only because [she] felt confidence with the dynamics of the situation knowing that he was getting the right support coming from me to meet those expectations” and that she “fought tooth and hard [sic] to make sure that . . . Rightmyer would meet those expectations and be given that support that he needed to meet his expectation on his PIP, which he did.” Livinghouse Dep. 31:1-6, 197:8-18.[13]

         Bard denies that he ever made any comments referring to Franckowiak as an “old dinosaur, ” expressing an interest in bringing in “fresh blood, ” or stating his intent to implement PIPs that were intended to result in the discharge of either Rightmyer or Franckowiak. Def.'s Facts ¶ 176. Hetrich testified that he recalled a conversation he had with Bard and Livinghouse about Rightmyer, but he does not recall Bard saying anything about Franckowiak during the conversation, nor does he recall Bard stating that ...

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