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PIERSON v. COLUMBUS McKINNON CORPORATION

May 6, 2005.

JENNA PIERSON, Plaintiff,
v.
COLUMBUS McKINNON CORPORATION, Defendant.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: JOHN T. ELFVIN, Senior District Judge

MEMORANDUM and ORDER*fn1

Plaintiff Jenna Pierson, proceeding pro se, commenced this action on December 19, 2002 against defendant Columbus McKinnon Corporation, the parent company of her former employers, for violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII"), 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. Plaintiff alleges that defendant and its subsidiaries — her former employers Washington Equipment and Abell-Howe Crane ("Abell-Howe"), both of which merged in March 2001 with Gaffey, Inc. to form another subsidiary of defendant, Crane Equipment & Services, Inc. — subjected her to a hostile work environment, caused her to suffer from wage discrimination, retaliated against her and constructively discharged her. On July 26, 2004 defendant moved for summary judgment pursuant to Rule 56(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure ("FRCvP") seeking to dismiss all of plaintiff's claims. Defendant claims that plaintiff (1) has failed to state a cognizable claim of hostile work environment or retaliation under Title VII, (2) is unable to demonstrate that any disparity in compensation was attributable to her gender, (3) was not constructively discharged and (4) has sued the wrong defendant, as she worked for defendant's subsidiaries but never for defendant itself. For the foregoing reasons, defendant's Motion will be granted and plaintiff's claims will be dismissed.*fn2

The facts, in the light most favorable to plaintiff — the non-moving party —, are found as follows and are undisputed except where otherwise noted. Plaintiff was originally hired by the President of Washington Equipment, Jeff Borders, in March 1998 to perform bookkeeping duties. Plaintiff has an Associate's degree and, prior to her employment with Washington Equipment, had been earning $26,000 per year. Based on her prior work experience, education and salary history and the Eureka, Illinois market where she was to be employed, Borders started plaintiff at a wage of $10 per hour. Plaintiff consistently received positive evaluations and, by December 21, 1998 — only nine months after commencing her employment —, plaintiff had received four raises, resulting in a wage of $12.75 per hour. Plaintiff admits that she was pleased with these raises and that Borders had treated her fairly.

  Plaintiff nevertheless first submitted her resignation in December 1998, but Borders convinced her to stay with Washington Equipment. Plaintiff, however, wanted to work closer to home, so she resigned from Washington Equipment in March 1999. She became employed by Midwest Construction earning between $12 and $13 per hour. During this time, in 1999, defendant purchased Washington Equipment. Plaintiff returned to Washington Equipment in January 2000 as a full-charge bookkeeper — one position above that which she had previously held at Washington Equipment — earning a wage of $14.25 per hour. Plaintiff was elevated to controller a few months later whereby she became a salaried employee. As controller, plaintiff was responsible for certain human resources functions as well as general controller duties. Plaintiff claims that, as controller, she was responsible for more documentation than her predecessor. In May 2001 plaintiff also took over controller responsibilities for Abell-Howe, which was accompanied by a raise. Nevertheless, many Abell-Howe employees came to plaintiff with their human resources inquiries. In August 2001 the human resources duties at both Washington Equipment and Abell-Howe were taken over by Sherrie Boyer. Plaintiff thereafter concentrated exclusively on her controller work and continued to do so for the remainder of her employment.

  Plaintiff declined a promotion offered to her in late 2001 or early 2002 to be the controller for the Gaffey division of Crane Equipment because it required her to travel and she had concerns about allegedly unfair compensation subsequent to such a promotion. Even without taking this promotion, plaintiff continued to receive favorable evaluations and increases in compensation such that her compensation at the time of her final resignation on July 9, 2002 was almost twice that with which she had begun.

  Plaintiff claims that, during the course of her employment, (1) she was subjected to a hostile work environment resulting from Borders's temper and response to the concerns of two of her assistants, (2) defendant instituted a discriminatory curtailment policy that temporarily reduced the compensation of many of its employees, (3) defendant compensated its controllers in a discriminatory manner, (4) she was retaliated against for complaining about the curtailment policy, Washington Equipment's accounting practices and a female co-worker's behavior towards her and (5) she was constructively discharged.

  Plaintiff claims that Borders's temper created a hostile work environment. According to plaintiff, "[t]he whole office would hear his yelling and screaming, whether he was with someone in his office, on the phone, or out walking around the office area or shop." (Pl.'s Statement of Material Facts ¶ 18.) Plaintiff further claims that Borders would kick things when angry. Plaintiff admits that Borders's temper was exposed to men and women alike and that his outbreaks of anger were not aimed at her — or anyone else's — gender. Plaintiff's hostile work environment claim also includes an allegation that Borders had instructed her to ignore her two assistants' human relations complaints about Abell-Howe's management of its timecards and enforcement of its forty-hour work week. Plaintiff maintains that she was uncomfortable when Borders instructed her to do nothing about these complaints.

  Plaintiff next claims that defendant's curtailment policy unfairly reduced the compensation of defendant's female employees. In August 2001 defendant was facing financial difficulties. To address this issue, defendant directed its various subsidiaries and divisions, including Washington Equipment, to temporarily reduce the compensation of many of its employees by ten percent (hereafter "the curtailment"). In exchange, these employees would be entitled to take one day off every two weeks. Borders resisted enacting the curtailment for as long as he could, but was forced to put it into effect on October 22, 2001. The curtailment remained in effect until November 26, 2001. Defendant advised Borders to exempt from the curtailment those employees doing outside sales or manufacturing-related work because they were most directly responsible for generating revenue for the company. All such employees were male. According to plaintiff, Borders exempted five additional male employees who, based on defendant's guidelines, should have been included in the curtailment. Plaintiff thus claims that the curtailment was discriminatory because, while no females were exempt from the curtailment, only fourteen percent of men were affected by it, and that it would have been more equitable if no employees were exempted. Defendant, in response, asserts that it had 42 male and only ten female employees. Furthermore, Borders and Hake — both of whom plaintiff claims were involved in retaliating against her — were affected by the curtailment.

  With regard to her wage discrimination claim, plaintiff asserts that defendant's male controllers — Benny Wong, the controller of Abell-Howe, and Brian Woltz, the controller of Gaffey — were paid higher wages than plaintiff although they allegedly had the same responsibilities and performed the same tasks. In particular, Wong received a starting annual salary of $60,000 and, in 2001, received an increase to $61,880. Woltz started at an annual salary of $39,000 and received one raise, resulting in a salary of $41,600. Plaintiff, upon being made a salaried employee, was assigned an annual salary of $32,864. Her subsequent raises resulted in her annual salary to increase to $40,944.80 by November 2001.*fn3 Plaintiff alleges that her raises were appropriate because they were based on her receiving additional responsibilities. Defendant contends that plaintiff cannot compare herself to Wong or Woltz because (1) Borders was not responsible for determining Wong's and Woltz's compensation, (2) Wong had a Bachelor's and a Master's Degree and had been earning between $62,000 and $64,000 in his previous jobs, (3) Wong, Woltz and plaintiff each worked for separate divisions of Crane Equipment — which, until they merged in March 2001, were independent companies — located in different markets — viz., Wong worked in Fort Worth, Texas, Woltz in a suburb of Chicago and plaintiff in central Illinois — and (4) Gaffey is a considerably larger business than Washington Equipment, with approximately three times the number of employees. Plaintiff, in response, maintains that Borders had to approve the raises of all the controllers.

  Next, plaintiff contends that she was retaliated against for complaining about defendant's curtailment policy, her compensation, a female co-worker's behavior towards her and defendant's accounting practices. Plaintiff claims that she raised these issues with Borders, Boyer and/or Debbie Dittmar, defendant's Human Resources Manager, and that, as a result of her complaints, she gradually lost some of her duties and responsibilities — in particular, the human resources component of her position and some supervisory responsibilities — and her performance was questioned for the first time since the commencement of her employment.

  Plaintiff asserts that her responsibilities had diminished in retaliation for her complaints. The Human Resources Manager position was given to Boyer in August 2001, plaintiff's assistants were terminated and replaced by Kim Hake, leaving her with no one to directly supervise and only a receptionist and Kim Hake to help her. In October 2001 plaintiff spoke with Borders about how she was not pleased with her minor increase in wages although she had taken on the responsibilities at Abell-Howe. Plaintiff claims that the verbal reprimand she received on June 10, 2002 was retaliatory. Plaintiff had complained to Boyer about the behavior of Hake, who had become the controller of Gaffey in January 2002 — to wit, that Hake was condescending to plaintiff and, in early 2002, had moved plaintiff's files and rearranged her office without plaintiff's permission. Boyer arranged a meeting between Borders, Boyer and plaintiff, during which Borders asked plaintiff if she would like to file a formal complaint about Hake's behavior, to which plaintiff said "Yes." Plaintiff claims that, at the same meeting, she received a verbal reprimand for submitting a budget file that included confidential salary information. Plaintiff claims that it was an honest mistake but admits that she did deserve the warning. However, she claims that she should have received the warning immediately following the incident in April rather than in June 2002. As such, she asserts that the warning was in retaliation for her complaints about Hake. Plaintiff admits that Hake was condescending towards both men and women and does not claim that the verbal reprimand or Hake's behavior was due to her gender.

  Borders and Boyer also raised an issue with plaintiff's performance by telling her that they had received complaints from other employees about plaintiff's demeaning behavior. Once again, plaintiff claims that, if such was not in retaliation for her complaints about Hake, it should have been brought to her attention immediately after the complaints were made. To further support her retaliation claim, plaintiff contends that this was the first time that Borders had raised an issue with plaintiff's performance.

  Following this meeting, on June 13, 2002, plaintiff wrote to Timothy Harvey, defendant's General Counsel and Secretary, accusing Borders and Washington Equipment of improper accounting practices. Plaintiff alleges that Washington Equipment added unnecessary expenses to an already-completed job, avoided adding expenses to a job that was over-budget and took inventory in a suspicious manner. Defendant initiated an investigation in response to plaintiff's complaints of accounting improprieties and concluded that nothing inappropriate had taken place.

  Plaintiff submitted her resignation shortly thereafter on July 2, 2002 with July 9, 2002 as her departure date. Plaintiff claims that she had decided to resign after the curtailment in October 2001 but stayed in hopes that Borders would be replaced and that Washington Equipment's new accounting software program — implemented in the spring of 2002 — would prevent the continuation of the allegedly improper accounting practices. Plaintiff claims that she was constructively discharged because her responsibilities were reduced and then her performance was questioned. On August 2, 2002 plaintiff filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which on September ...


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