Walker v. Trane U.S., Inc.
MEMORANDUM OPINION OF THE COURT. Signed by District Judge Aleta A. Trauger on 4/10/2017. (DOCKET TEXT SUMMARY ONLY-ATTORNEYS MUST OPEN THE PDF AND READ THE ORDER.)(am)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF TENNESSEE
BEATE E. WALKER,
TRANE U.S., INC.,
Case No. 3:15-cv-01496
Judge Aleta A. Trauger
Plaintiff Beate Walker filed her Verified Complaint (Doc. No. 1) in December 2015,
asserting a claim of discrimination on the basis of gender in violation of Title VII of the Civil
Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e. Now before the court is the defendant’s Motion for
Summary Judgment. (Doc. No. 13.) The motion has been fully briefed and is ripe for review. For
the reasons set forth herein, the court will grant the motion and dismiss this case with prejudice.
Defendant Trane U.S., Inc. (“Trane”) is engaged in the manufacture of industrial heating,
cooling, and ventilation systems. It operates a manufacturing plant in Clarksville, Tennessee,
employing approximately 1200 people. Walker was employed by Trane as a production leader
from 1998 until her discharge on February 5, 2014. A production leader supervises 25 to 50
hourly production-line employees and is responsible for safety, quality, delivery, employee
morale, and employee engagement.
In 2012, Trane conducted a series of “roundtable” meetings in which hourly employees
These facts are drawn from Plaintiff’s Response to Defendant’s Statement of
Undisputed Material Facts (Doc. No. 20-1) and are undisputed for purposes of the Motion for
Summary Judgment, unless otherwise indicated.
provided the human resources department with feedback about their work environments. During
the roundtable meetings, employees complained about several of their production leaders.
According to Erin O’Connor-Dziedzic (“O’Connor”), who was at that time Trane’s human
resources manager, the purpose of these meetings was “to determine what was causing the
morale issues amongst hourly employees” in the particular production area where Walker was
assigned to work. (O’Connor Decl. ¶ 3, Doc. No. 17.)
O’Connor attended these meetings; line-management did not. (Id. ¶ 3.) O’Connor avers
that the complaints about Walker, of all the production leaders, “were, by far, the most
pronounced.” (Id. ¶ 4.) “Specifically,” she said, “I heard time and again that Ms. Walker
frequently employed a bullying, belittling, and generally abusive communication style when
interacting with her hourly subordinates.” (Id.)2
After the roundtable meetings, O’Connor met with plant management to discuss options
for addressing the morale issues. At one of these meetings, Trane management discussed
discharging Walker. (O’Connor Decl. ¶¶ 5–6; York Dep. 76, Doc. No. 16-8.) Instead of
discharging her at that time, however, the company agreed that production manager Jason York
would provide Walker with a “fresh start” by permitting her to transfer to the area of the plant
that he managed—the “Voyager 3” production line. Up until that time, Walker had worked in the
“Voyager 2” production area under production manager Kevin Frilling.
Walker attempts to refute O’Connor’s assertion that the complaints about Walker were
more pronounced than those concerning other supervisors by pointing out that Trane has not
produced any documentation of the results of the roundtable meetings. (Pl.’s Resp. to Def.’s
Statement of Undisp. Facts ¶ 9, Doc. No. 20-1.) O’Connor, however, was present in the meetings
and is competent to testify about what she witnessed. In addition, Walker has not established that
any documentation of those meetings was actually created.
Walker also points to the deposition testimony of her supervisor in 2013, where he was
asked about the 2013 Employee Engagement Consensus Survey. (York Dep. 86–88, Doc. No.
20-4, at 28–30.) That survey, which did yield written results, is completely separate from the
2012 roundtable meetings.
Around June 27, 2012, Frilling and O’Connor together drafted a memorandum to Walker
(the “June 2012 Memo”), ostensibly from Frilling, regarding her reassignment. (O’Connor Decl.
¶ 7; Doc. No. 16-3.) This Memo states:
As you know, the Company has been conducting a series of roundtable meetings
with employees on the Voyager 2 production line to gain a better understanding
of issues driving high turnover.
Feedback from the employee population identifies your behavior in the workplace
as significantly contributing to a poor work environment. You have been coached
in the past about needing to control your temper and behave in a professional
You are being moved to a new department in the hopes that this new environment
will enable you to address any leadership deficiencies and learn to respond to
employee issues and production issues in an acceptable, supportive and
productive manner. Beate, it is imperative that you understand that further
unacceptable or inappropriate behavior on your part will result in termination of
The Company offers a variety of resources that you may find helpful as you work
to make required improvements. I encourage you to reach out to the Employee
Assistance Program for personal support, and I also encourage you to identify
courses, either through our Learning Management System, or through community
or professional agencies for training. Our leadership team is prepared to assist and
support your [sic] with this training; however, you must understand that
responsibility to correct these issues is yours.
I am hopeful that you can make and sustain the required improvements to allow
you to become a successful member of the Trane team. Please let me know what
assistance you require.
Effective July 1, 2012, you will be reporting to Jason York. Jason is aware of the
reasons for this decision and is also available to provide guidance, training and
(Doc. No. 16-3 (emphasis added).) A handwritten notation indicates that O’Connor met with
Walker on July 10, 2012 to discuss the June 2012 Memo, which Walker refused to sign.
O’Connor also wrote across the bottom of the Memo: “Complaints from employees – numerous
employees – about disrespectful behavior. Discussed incident with Rose Worthington recently
when Beate cursed at her. She is losing trust from mgmt & employees.” (Id.) Walker testified
that she received the memorandum, which she characterized as a “writeup”: “According to the
company, I was written up for – they had a roundtable meeting. There was a meeting with the
hourly employees. And they say I was verbally abusing [hourly employees].” (Walker Dep. 29–
30, Doc. No. 16-2.)
Walker does not accuse Frilling of discriminating against her on the basis of gender.
Rather, despite the clarity of the June 2012 Memo, Walker insists that Frilling never counseled
her on how she treated other employees or indicated that there was a problem with her
management, and he “was as surprised as [she] was that [she] was given a Reassignment of
Work Location.” (Walker Aff. ¶ 3, Doc. No. 20-3.) Although she does not deny receiving the
June 2012 Memo or speaking with O’Connor about it, she claims she was “never given details
about what she was doing wrong or who [she] was supposed to be abusing.” (Id. ¶ 5.) She
complains that she was never allowed to refute the allegations against her or show O’Connor the
evidence that she had less employee turnover than the other production leaders on her line. (Id.
In July 2012, Walker began working in the Voyager 3 production area, where she was
supervised by Jason York. According to O’Connor, “[w]ithin several months of Ms. Walker’s
transfer to Voyager 3, hourly employees began coming to [O’Connor’s] office and complaining
about Ms. Walker’s abusive management style.” (O’Connor Decl. ¶ 9.)
In March 2013, York completed the 2012 Year End Performance and Leadership
Competency Review for Walker. (Doc. No. 16-6.) He noted that “the company cannot ignore
Beate’s problems early in the year. Specifically, verbal abuse to hourly employees.” (Doc. No.
16-6, at 5.) That comment pertained to the behavior that prompted Walker’s move to the
Voyager 3 production area and that predated York’s supervision of Walker. York’s evaluation of
Walker’s performance during the six months of 2012 when Walker was actually under York’s
supervision was essentially positive, except in the areas of “Builds Talent and Capability” and
“Coaches for Performance,” where she was rated as having “Low Proficiency” and “No to Very
Low Proficiency.” (Doc. No. 16-6, at 6.)
In September 2013, Trane conducted a company-wide employee engagement survey.
(Doc. No. 6-7.) Walker denies receiving a copy of the survey; she maintains instead that she was
shown only her “percentage rating” in the survey and not the responses of the hourly employees
who reported to her. (Pl.’s Decl. ¶ 10, Doc. No. 20-3.) According to O’Connor, “[t]he employee
engagement scores for areas Ms. Walker supervised were disproportionately negative.”
(O’Connor Decl. ¶ 10.) Walker objects that the defendant has not provided documentation of
other production leaders’ results. (Pl.’s Resp. to Def.’s Statement of Undisp. Facts ¶ 20, Doc. No.
Shortly after the results of the engagement survey were released, Jason York conducted a
survey of the Voyager 3 hourly employees called “Start, Stop, Continue.” The employees filled
Walker also contends that her results were not as unfavorable as Trane maintains. She
York testified that Walker’s score for the standard “I am proud I work for the
company” was 55% whereas his own was only 49%. York testified that this was
because York’s own scores were based upon a combination of all production
leaders’ score[s]. For York’s scores to be lower than Plaintiff’s scores, the other
production leaders’ scores had to be even lower tha[n] Plaintiff’s.
(Pl.’s Resp. to Def.’s Statement of Undisp. Facts ¶ 20, Doc. No. 20-1 (citing York Dep. 86–88,
Doc. No. 20-4); see also Doc. No. 16-7, at 16.) There are other areas as well in which the
plaintiff’s “Favorable” rating percentage is higher than York’s. However, the plaintiff’s ratings
are substantially lower in such areas as “Employees are getting the training they need to keep up
with customer demands,” “My immediate manager gives me feedback that helps me improve my
performance,” “My immediate manager provides me with recognition or praise for good work,”
and “The coaching I receive from my immediate manager is helpful in improving my
performance.” (Doc. No. 16-7, at 18, 26–27.) Regardless, because neither party has adequately
explained this 40-page document or how to interpret it, the court accords it little weight.
out forms for each supervisor that simply asked them to list activities their supervisor should
“start” doing, “stop” doing,” and “continue” doing. The form also provided space at the bottom
for “Additional Comments.” (See Doc. No. 16-9.) According to York and O’Connor, the
employees’ feedback about Walker was substantially worse than it was for the other supervisors
in the Voyager 3 production area. (See York Dep. 106, Doc. No. 16-8 (“Ms. Walker’s ‘start, stop
and continue’ negative comments compared to the other supervisors and production leaders, it
was astronomically more negative with negative comments.”); O’Connor Decl. ¶ 12 (“I reviewed
the ‘Start, Stop, Continue’ feedback relating to each of the leaders in Voyager-3. Ms. Walker’s
feedback was by far the most negative.”).)
Forty “Stop, Start, Continue” forms filled out by Walker’s supervisees are in the record.
(Doc. No. 16-9.) Of these, approximately half provide negative or very negative comments. For
example, many of the comments suggest that Walker “start” being fair and respecting people and
“stop” playing favorites and “downing” people. (See, e.g., Doc. No. 16-9, at 1, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 10,
11, 13, 14, 15, 18, 22, 27.) Approximately a quarter of the surveys are neutral or provide both
positive and negative comments4; another quarter are very positive.5
York and O’Connor met in January 2014 to discuss the results of the Start, Stop,
Continue survey. (York Dep. 45, 93, Doc. No. 16-8; O’Connor Decl. ¶ 13.) In the same meeting,
they discussed Walker’s low employee engagement scores on the employee engagement survey
and the fact that O’Connor was continuing to hear complaints directly from hourly employees
about Walker’s “abusive management style.” (O’Connor Decl. ¶ 13.)
For instance, some employees complain about favoritism but nonetheless commend
Walker for being supportive or a “great supervisor.” (See, e.g., Doc. No. 16-9, at 33, 36.)
Positive comments include, “I have no problems with how Beate runs the line. I love
having her as my forman [sic],” “I think she’s doing a great job!!” and “Doing a great job
overall.” (Doc. No. 16-9, at 17, 19, 31.)
The evidence regarding who exactly made the decision to terminate Walker is somewhat
conflicting. O’Connor testified that she and York together determined that Walker had not
improved her management style since receiving the June 2012 Memo and that it would be
necessary to terminate her employment. (O’Connor Decl. ¶ 14.) York testified that the decision
was “a collaboration between human resources [i.e., O’Connor], [him]self, and the plant
manager. And it was a unanimous consensus.” (York Dep. 45, Doc. No. 16-8.) He clarified that
he and O’Connor presented the matter to the plant manager. (Id.) The defendant’s answer to the
plaintiff’s Interrogatory No. 14, however, states that Kevin Frilling and Jason York made the
decision to terminate Walker. (Doc. No. 20-19, at 10.)
In any event, on February 5, 2014, O’Connor and York met with Walker and informed
her that her employment was being terminated. Walker was told at the time she was terminated
that it was “due to” the June 2012 Memo.
The defendant presents evidence of other Trane supervisory employees who were
disciplined or terminated around the same time for similar reasons. For example, Juarez Jarman,
a male production leader, was discharged in February 2014, a few days after Walker, due to
complaints about his management style. Buck Tidwell, a male production leader, was placed on
a Performance Improvement Plan (“PIP”) in October 2014 (York Dep. Ex. 7, Doc. No. 20-9) for
abusive behavior toward the employees he supervised. He was discharged sometime thereafter
due to “performance issues.” (York Dep. 44, Doc. No. 16-8.)6 In addition, Dwight Byard, a male
The plaintiff alleges that Tidwell’s termination was characterized by the company as a
reduction in force. In support of this assertion, she points only to a handwritten post-it note, of
unidentified origin, that was purportedly included in the defendant’s Response to Plaintiff’s
Request for Production of Documents (Doc. No. 20-20, at 33), stating “Josh Miller stated
Tidwell’s termination was a reduction in force.” The record does not indicate who wrote this
note. York testified that, regardless of how it was characterized, Tidwell was terminated for
production leader, was demoted as a result of his low scores on the employee management
survey. Valerie Woodby, a female production leader supervised by Kevin Frilling at the same
time as Walker, received negative comments about her management style during the 2012
employee roundtable meetings. Like Walker, Woodby was given a “writeup” and moved to a
new area. Thereafter, human resources did not receive any more complaints about Woodby’s
management style. Woodby has since been promoted and remains employed by Trane.
Rule 56 requires the court to grant a motion for summary judgment if “the movant shows
that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a
matter of law.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). To win summary judgment on a particular claim, the
moving defendant must show that, as a matter of undisputed material fact, the plaintiff cannot
establish at least one essential element of that claim. Once the moving defendant makes its initial
showing, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to provide evidence beyond the pleadings, “set[ting]
forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Moldowan v. City of Warren,
578 F.3d 351, 374 (6th Cir. 2009); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322–23
(1986). “In evaluating the evidence, the court must draw all inferences in the light most
favorable to the non-moving party.” Moldowan, 578 F.3d at 374 (citing Matsushita Elec. Indus.
Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986)).
At this stage, “‘the judge’s function is not . . . to weigh the evidence and determine the
truth of the matter, but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial.’” Id. (quoting
Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249 (1986)). But “[t]he mere existence of a
scintilla of evidence in support of the [non-moving party’s] position will be insufficient,” and the
party’s proof must be more than “merely colorable.” Anderson, 477 U.S. 242, at 252. An issue of
fact is “genuine” only if a reasonable jury could find for the non-moving party. Moldowan, 578
F.3d at 374 (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252).
Walker asserts one claim of sex discrimination in violation of Title VII, based on the
termination of her employment in 2014.
A plaintiff may prove unlawful discrimination by proffering either direct or indirect
evidence. Tennial v. United Parcel Serv., Inc., 840 F.3d 292, 302 (6th Cir. 2016). In this case, the
plaintiff proffers indirect evidence. To analyze Title VII claims using indirect evidence, the Sixth
Circuit applies the burden-shifting approach established by the McDonnell Douglas line of cases.
Id. See McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 802 (1973).
Under this approach, Walker must first establish the elements of a prima facie case. To
do so, she must show that she was (1) a member of a protected class, (2) subject to an adverse
employment action, (3) qualified for the position, and (4) replaced by a person outside the
protected class or treated differently than similarly situated employees outside the protected
class. Tennial, 840 F.3d at 302 (citing Mitchell v. Toledo Hosp., 964 F.2d 577, 582 (6th Cir.
1992)). If Walker can establish these elements, then the burden shifts to Trane to articulate a
legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the adverse employment action. McDonnell Douglas,
411 U.S. at 802. Assuming that Trane can clear that minimal hurdle, Walker can still survive the
company’s motion for summary judgment if she can “identify evidence from which a reasonable
jury could conclude that the proffered reason is actually a pretext for unlawful discrimination.”
Tennial, 840 F.3d at 302 (citation omitted).
Prima Facie Case
Walker has established the elements of her prima facie case. First, as a woman, she is a
member of a protected class for purposes of her sex discrimination claim. Valentine-Johnson v.
Roche, 386 F.3d 800, 814 (6th Cir. 2004). Second, her discharge is a classic example of an
adverse employment action. Vincent v. Brewer Co., 514 F.3d 489, 495 (6th Cir. 2007). Third, she
was objectively qualified for the position she held, and the defendant does not contend otherwise.
Indeed, in light of the fact that Walker had held the position for more than fifteen years, Trane
would have difficulty arguing that she was unqualified. See Cline v. Catholic Diocese of Toledo,
206 F.3d 651, 660–66 (6th Cir. 2000) (noting that determination of the “qualified” prong of the
prima facie case will generally “involve assessing whether the plaintiff was meeting the
employer’s expectations prior to the onset of the events that the employer cites as its reason for
the termination”). And finally, Trane concedes that Walker was replaced by a male employee.
(York Dep. 108, Doc. No. 16-8.)
Legitimate, Non-Discriminatory Reason for Adverse Employment Action
Because the plaintiff has established a prima facie case of discrimination, the burden
shifts to the defendant to articulate a legitimate non-discriminatory reason for the adverse
employment action. McDonnell Douglas, 411 U.S. at 802. “This is merely a burden of
production, not of persuasion, and it does not involve a credibility assessment.” Upshaw v. Ford
Motor Co., 576 F.3d 576, 585 (6th Cir. 2009).
Trane has offered a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the discharge: it states that
Walker was discharged due to repeated complaints about Walker’s abusive management style.
Poor communication, management and leadership skills constitute legitimate, non-discriminatory
reasons for an employee’s termination. See, e.g., Brown v. Ohio State Univ., 616 F. Supp. 2d
740, 751 (S.D. Ohio 2009) (“Reasons such as lack of leadership and management skills, the
failure to accept problems within her responsibility, untimely completion of assignments, and
poor communication are legitimate non-discriminatory reasons for an employee's demotion or
termination.” (collecting cases)).
Because the employer has offered a nondiscriminatory reason for the adverse action, the
burden shifts back to Walker to prove that the stated reason is pretextual. At this stage, the
plaintiff has the burden to produce “sufficient evidence from which a jury could reasonably
reject [the employer’s] explanation of why it fired her.” Chen v. Dow Chem. Co., 580 F.3d 394,
400 (6th Cir. 2009). In the Sixth Circuit, a plaintiff can show pretext in “three interrelated ways:
(1) that the proffered reasons had no basis in fact, (2) that the proffered reasons did not actually
motivate the employer’s action, or (3) that they were insufficient to motivate discharge.” Tingle
v. Arbors at Hilliard, 692 F.3d 523, 530 (6th Cir. 2012) (citations omitted). The test should not
be applied formalistically or rigidly. Rather, “[p]retext is a commonsense inquiry: did the
employer fire the employee for the stated reason or not?” Chen, 580 F.3d at 400 n.4.
Whether the Proffered Reasons Have a Basis in Fact
The proffered reason has a clear basis in fact. There is no dispute that the plaintiff
received the June 2012 Memo after the human resources manager was made aware of numerous
employees’ complaints about Walker. The Memo unequivocally notified her that her
unprofessional behavior and failure to control her temper placed her job in jeopardy and that she
was being moved to a different department “in hopes that this new environment will enable you
to address any leadership deficiencies and learn to respond to employee issues and production
issues in an acceptable, supportive and productive manner.” (Doc. No. 16-3.) The human
resources manager, O’Connor, testified that she continued to receive complaints about Walker’s
leadership style after the move, and the “Stop, Start, Continue” survey demonstrated a problem
with the plaintiff’s leadership style.
Although the plaintiff disputes whether her evaluations were that much worse than those
of other supervisors and contends that her conduct was not actually abusive, the information in
Trane’s possession at the time it made the decision to terminate the plaintiff’s employment
clearly was sufficient to give Trane reason to believe that a substantial number of Walker’s
subordinates were unhappy with her leadership style.7 The fact that the plaintiff performed well
in some areas and even that she was liked by some of her employees, as documented by her
annual performance evaluations and the “Start, Stop, Continue” surveys, does not refute the
evidence that she was not performing well in her interactions with a substantial percentage of her
subordinates. So long as Trane had an honest belief that Walker was abusive to her employees,
supported by reasonable reliance on particularized facts, she cannot establish that the company’s
proffered reason was pretextual, even if it is ultimately shown to be incorrect. See Russell v.
Univ. of Toledo, 537 F.3d 596, 605 (6th Cir. 2008) (“Under this circuit’s ‘modified honest-belief
doctrine,’ for an employer to avoid a finding that its claimed nondiscriminatory reason was
pretextual, the employer must be able to establish its reasonable reliance on the particularized
facts that were before it at the time the decision was made.” (quoting Wright v. Murray Guard,
Inc., 455 F.3d 702, 708 (6th Cir. 2006) (some internal quotation marks omitted)).
In sum, the plaintiff has not presented sufficient evidence from which a jury could
conclude that Trane’s proffered reason for firing her was false.
Whether the Proffered Reason Did Not Actually Motivate Discharge
In an attempt to show that the proffered reason did not actually motivate the discharge,
the plaintiff argues that (1) similarly situated male employees were treated more favorably than
The fact that some of her subordinates liked her a lot actually tends to substantiate the
comments from others that she had “pets” and “favorites.” (See, e.g., Doc. No. 16-9, at 3, 4, 10.)
she was; and (2) the company did not follow its own policies prescribing progressive discipline.
a. Similarly Situated Male Employees
Walker points to Trane’s treatment of Dwight Byard, Ricky Brock, and Buck Tidwell,
arguing that they were treated more favorably than she.8 According to Walker:
(1) Byard, a production leader, testified that he was offered the option to accept a
demotion to the position of quality tech in October 2014, as a result of low employee survey
scores. (Byard Dep. 5–6, Doc. No. 20-12, at 2–3.)
(2) Brock, a production leader, received a written warning as a result of a harassment
complaint in December 2006. (Doc. No. 20-14.) Brock was required to attend training sessions
on “interpersonal skills” and “leadership skills” and allowed to keep his job. (Id.; Doc. No. 2015.)
(3) Tidwell was a production leader supervised by Jason York. He was placed on a PIP in
October 2014. (Doc. No. 20-9.) The PIP specifically identifies unacceptable behavior on the part
of Tidwell throughout 2014, including arguing with employees, being physically threatening, and
employing favoritism. The PIP identified very specific corrective actions Tidwell would be
required to take, including that he should take two classes (“Leadership Essentials: Leading with
The plaintiff also points to an employee named Phelon Spencer as a comparator.
Spencer was a production leader from 2008 through 2015. In 2011, he was given a PIP by Jason
York, who supervised him at that time, for having a bad attitude and not attending “boards.”
(Spencer Dep. 7–9, Doc. No. 20-18.) Spencer submitted a written rebuttal to human resources,
contesting the factual bases for his PIP, after which he and the company came to a mutual
agreement to remove the PIP from his file. According to the plaintiff, Spencer now has a “clean
slate” and remains employed by Trane. (Doc. No. 20, at 17.)
Trane objects to the introduction of evidence about Spencer, pointing out that the plaintiff
has introduced additional facts in her Response in Opposition to the Motion for Summary
Judgment that were not included in a separate statement of facts as to which the plaintiff
contends there is a material factual dispute. The court concludes that the facts introduced by the
plaintiff regarding Spencer do not establish that he was similarly situated in all material respects.
In particular, it does not appear that Spencer was charged with abusive behavior or treating his
Emotional Intelligence” and “Leadership Essentials: Motivating Employees”) and participate in
“Respect Effect training” within thirty days. (Id.) The PIP notified him that “failure to address
the described performance behaviors may result in further disciplinary action up to and including
Walker argues that these male production leaders, like the plaintiff, were accused of
engaging in verbally abusive, harassing, or otherwise inappropriate behavior but, unlike Walker,
they were not discharged. Byard was given the opportunity to take a demotion. Brock was found
guilty of intimidating and harassing behavior only after a full investigation in which he was
allowed to participate, and he was put on a PIP. Tidwell was placed on a PIP. Walker argues that
she was never given the opportunity to refute the allegations against her; she was not placed on a
PIP that specifically notified her what conduct was considered inappropriate; and she was never
given specific instructions on how to correct her behavior. She asserts that the only other female
production leader, Valerie Woodby, was similarly left to her own devices rather than being given
a PIP and specific directives as to how to remedy her conduct. Walker argues that, if she had
been given the same opportunities as the male employees, “there is no doubt that” she would
have corrected her behavior. (Doc. No. 20, at 20.)
In response, the defendant points out that the plaintiff, contrary to her assertion, was
given notice of her unacceptable behavior and an opportunity to cure it, in the form of the June
2012 Memo. Byard, in contrast, received no written notice but simply a pay cut and demotion to
a different position. Brock, Tidwell, and Woodby, like Walker, were all production leaders about
whom the defendant received complaints of verbal abuse or harassment. All received some form
of written notice: Brock received a written warning; Tidwell received a PIP; Walker and
Woodby each received a “reassignment of work location” that also specifically placed them on
notice of inappropriate behavior. According to the defendant, after receiving the writing,
Woodby and Brock reformed their behavior and remain employed by Trane. Woodby has even
been promoted. Tidwell, however, was ultimately terminated due to “performance issues” and
employee complaints about his management style. (York Dep. 39–44, Doc. No. 16-8.) Another
production leader, Juarez Jarman, was also given written notice but failed to improve his
conduct; he was fired the same week as Walker, due to complaints about his management style.
(O’Connor Decl. ¶ 17; Trane EEO Response, Doc. No. 20-20, at 1–2.) Trane argues, in short,
that it “treated production leaders guilty of abuse or harassment similarly in all material respects:
Trane warned them in writing (albeit using different forms), offered them training and, if they
did not improve their conduct, terminated them, regardless of gender.” (Doc. No. 21, at 5.)
The court finds that, overall, the treatment of these various employees, although
somewhat different from Walker’s treatment, was not markedly more favorable. And certainly
not so favorable as to give rise to a permissible inference that the proffered reason for the
plaintiff’s discharge was not the real reason. Rather, the treatment of these other production
leaders confirms that Trane took complaints against its supervisors seriously and that it was not
unusual for the company to discipline or terminate production leaders for inappropriate conduct
or poor leadership skills.
b. The Company’s Policies Prescribing Progressive Discipline
Walker argues that Trane has in place a Performance Counseling Policy (Doc. No. 20-5)
that, she argues, requires managers to follow a specific course of progressive discipline. She
argues that Buck Tidwell received a PIP in compliance with the Performance Counseling Policy
but that Jason York never gave her a PIP. Tidwell’s PIP, which was signed by human resources
manager Josh Miller and by York, outlines specific corrective action that Tidwell was expected
to take, including completing two leadership classes and participating in “Respect Effect
training.” (York Dep. Ex. 7, Doc. No. 20-9.) Regarding the plaintiff, however, York testified that
it was not his “responsibility to teach someone how to be respectful to another person.” (York
Dep. 47, Doc. No. 20-4.) Walker suggests that this discrepancy calls York’s credibility into
question. She also points out that no other department used the anonymous “Start, Stop,
Continue” survey that York used, and no other employees were fired as a result of this survey.
In response, Trane asserts that the Performance Counseling Policy does not actually
require a PIP. Rather, it states that “appropriate disciplinary action may have to be taken, up to
and including termination, without prior warning or notice.” (Doc. No. 20-5.) Trane also argues
that the differences between her treatment and that of other employees highlighted by the
plaintiff amount to “minor differences” that “reflect permissible differences in how different
human resources managers approached discipline.” (Doc. No. 21, at 4.) That is, three different
human resources managers were involved in the disciplinary actions at issue here. HR Manager
Privott Stroman issued Brock’s “Written Warning” in 2006. (Doc. No. 20-14.) HR Manager Erin
O’Connor worked with Kevin Frilling to provide Walker and Woodby with their “Reassignment
of Work Location” in 2012. (Doc. No. 17 ¶¶ 7–8.) HR Manager Josh Miller, who replaced
O’Connor in February 2014, working with York, issued the PIP to Tidwell in October 2014.
(Doc. No. 20-9; O’Connor Decl. ¶ 1.) Moreover, although the plaintiff complains that she should
have been placed on a PIP prior to being terminated, Trane points out that only one of the male
production leaders disciplined or terminated around the same time as the plaintiff for abusing or
harassing employees received a PIP. In addition, while it is true that Tidwell’s PIP directed him
to take training classes, Stroman instructed Brock to take certain training classes in his written
warning; and O’Connor admonished Walker to take training classes in her written counseling.
The court finds that Trane’s failure to comply strictly with its own Performance
Counseling Policy in its treatment of Walker is not suggestive of discrimination in this case,
particularly because it is apparent that Trane regularly failed to comply with its own policy.
While it is certainly advisable for a company to follow its written policies, failure to do so does
not per se amount to evidence of discrimination. As set forth above, all of the employees
disciplined for abusive leadership practices were treated basically consistently, with minor
discrepancies that appear to be related to the identity of the production manager and human
resources manager involved and when the action occurred. The minor factual discrepancies on
which the plaintiff relies simply do not give rise to a reasonable inference that Trane’s proffered
reasons did not actually motivate the decision to terminate Walker.
Whether the Proffered Reasons Were Insufficient to Motivate Discharge
Poor management and leadership skills constitute legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons
for an employee’s termination. Brown v. Ohio State Univ., 616 F. Supp. 2d at 751. Moreover, as
set forth above, the record in this case makes it clear that Trane took seriously complaints about
its production leaders’ attitudes and treatment of their subordinate employees. The fact that
another employee, Juarez Jarman, was terminated for his abusive leadership tactics within days
of the plaintiff’s termination further establishes that the proffered reasons were sufficient to
Walker attempts to argue that her conduct was less egregious than that of Jarman and
Tidwell. Even assuming that the plaintiff’s conduct was less egregious, the record makes it clear
that the complaints about her conduct were consistent and repeated. The plaintiff has not
presented “sufficient evidence from which a jury could reasonably reject [Trane’s] explanation
of why it fired her.” Chen v. Dow Chem. Co., 580 F.3d 394, 400 (6th Cir. 2009).
For the reasons set forth herein, the court finds that the plaintiff has not established the
existence of a material factual dispute to call into question the legitimacy of the defendant’s
proffered reasons for terminating her employment. Because the plaintiff cannot establish that the
defendant’s reasons are pretext for unlawful discrimination, the court will grant the defendant’s
Motion for Summary Judgment.
An appropriate order is filed herewith.
ALETA A. TRAUGER
United States District Judge
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