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Lauth v. Covance, Inc.

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

July 13, 2017

Steven A. Lauth, Plaintiff-Appellant,
Covance, Inc., Defendant-Appellee.

          Argued February 7, 2017

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, Indianapolis Division. No. l:14-cv-00136-WTL-TAB - William T. Lawrence, Judge.

          Before BAUER, POSNER, and SYKES, Circuit Judges.

          BAUER, Circuit Judge.

         Steven Lauth was terminated from his position at Covance Central Laboratories, Inc. on October 25, 2012. He sued Covance, raising claims of age discrimination and retaliation. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Covance. The court also awarded certain costs to Covance. Lauth appeals from both orders.

          I. BACKGROUND

         The facts that follow are those established by the summary judgment record in the district court, as viewed in the light most favorable to Lauth. See Whitaker v. Wis. Dep't of Health Servs., 849 F.3d 681, 682 (7th Cir. 2017).

         Lauth began working at Covance in 2006 at the age of 54. He started as a second shift supervisor in the kit production department. From the time Lauth started in 2006 through April 2012, Donald Snyder was his direct supervisor.

         After the end of each year, and sometimes at mid-year, Lauth received a performance review called a Performance Management Document (PMD). Snyder, as Lauth's supervisor, wrote his first review in 2006 and issued Lauth an overall rating of "Meets Expectations." He praised Lauth for maximizing his department's output and for his "diligence in getting his staff cross trained as much as possible." Snyder also commented on Lauth's communication style, noting that he "need[s] to tailor or soften somewhat his approach, to that of his workforce." He stated that Lauth could do this by "using a little more compassion and maybe even incorporating ways to relax the 2nd shift." Finally, Snyder noted that Lauth needed "to realize and make any necessary adjustments in his style, in order to match the environment of the 2nd shift workforce, without comprimising [sic] his beliefs and standards."

         In Lauth's 2007 PMD, Snyder again gave him a "Meets Expectations" overall rating. Snyder praised Lauth's diligence, work ethic, and "all business approach" to his job. However, the PMD also noted improvements that Lauth needed to make in his communication style. Snyder noted that several staff members had expressed their discontent with Lauth's supervision and communication style; Snyder stated that Lauth "will need, and has begun, to tailor or soften somewhat his approach to that of his workforce." Snyder also commented that Lauth "is at times unreceptive to take help and/or suggestions from others, choosing to do it his way. This is often not received well with his peers."

         Lauth received an overall rating of "Meets Expectations" again in 2008. Snyder commented that Lauth was able to accomplish his department's output with the least experienced and fewest number of employees. He also noted that morale "no longer seems to be an issue within [Lauth's] shift, regarding his supervision and communication style." However, Snyder also reiterated his concerns that Lauth "appears unreceptive to take help and/or suggestions from others" and stated that Lauth "must improve ... [his] working relationship with his fellow shift supervisors." Because Lauth's style was often not well-received by his peers, Snyder stated that "I actually wonder whether or not if [Lauth] is the right fit for our team." In this PMD, Snyder warned that if Lauth's "temperament and communication practices" did not change, "this may impact his rating for next year, or potentially run the risk of [Snyder] needing to replace him with someone who works better with the others in the room, across all facets."

         In 2009, Lauth again received a rating of "Meets Expectations." In 2010, however, he received a rating of "Exceeds Expectations." Snyder praised Lauth for leading all shift's in total output, noting that he played a "huge role in [kit produc-tion]'s overall departmental success in 2010." He also noted that Lauth had done a good job avoiding conflict with other staff. Finally, however, Snyder commented that Lauth is "very strong willed and an independent thinker, " which "[a]t times ... can be confused or perceived to be detrimental to the cause."

         On July 11, 2011, Lauth received a mid-year PMD from Snyder, which again complimented Lauth for meeting his unit's output goals. However, Snyder also provided detailed comments regarding issues with Lauth's communication methods and his unwillingness to be a "team player." Specifically, Snyder mentioned emails that Lauth had sent during the first half of 2011, in which Lauth addressed noise issues in his department. Snyder noted that "[a]lthough I know [Lauth's] intent was fine, the manner [in] which the emails were written and perceived, [was] counterproductive." Snyder also noted a specific instance in which Lauth challenged one of Snyder's directives and expressed an inability to complete an assigned task. In the "Team Player" category, Snyder stated that "[Lauth's] 'my way' approach is no longer acceptable to me. This needs to change and improve this year. I want to see an obvious change in [Lauth] relating to how he works with all [kit production] leadership, otherwise, [Lauth] risks being given a Needs Improvement rating at year end." Shortly after Snyder issued the mid-year PMD, he and Lauth met in person to discuss it. During that meeting, Snyder asked Lauth when he planned to retire.

         Covance had a system called AlertLine, through which employees could submit workplace complaints. On August 28, 2011, Lauth submitted a complaint through AlertLine regarding Aaron Ellsworth, another employee in the kit production department. Between 2006 and 2011, Lauth had various verbal complaints to Snyder about Ellsworth, alleging that he bullied and intimidated Lauth and other employees.

         In his AlertLine complaint, Lauth complained of Ellsworth's harassment, but specifically noted that it did not relate "to unlawful harassment ... because of race, color, religion, national origin, gender, age, disability, veteran's status or any other characteristic protected by law[.]" Lauth cited examples of "behavior that could be labeled 'bullying' and 'intimidation' contrary to Covance's Principle of 'Respect for the individual.'" Additionally, Lauth stated the following in reference to his 2011 mid-year PMD:

Due to the statements made by my manager in my review, I responded in an email specifically to my manager's comments in a much more timid manner where I would normally have felt comfortable challenging some of his assertions, because I felt that I was being threatened-not truly because of my work performance being inadequate, but more due to the environment that exists in our department as a result of [Ellsworth]'s continued exhibits of control, intimidation and bullying. It was very clear that [Snyder]'s comments of being a team player were meant to communicate that I needed to 'get along better' with [Ellsworth].... Although this abusive environment that [Ellsworth] has created exists and has been brought to [Snyder]'s attention on many occasions by myself and others, he has allowed the situation to continue.

          Covance referred this complaint to Human Resources Generalist Gary Grubb for investigation. Grubb completed the investigation in late November or early December 2011. He found that Ellsworth had behaved inappropriately on several occasions, raising his voice and making inappropriate comments. Grubb also found that Snyder had not mistreated Lauth, and identified several areas in which Lauth could improve his workplace communications. He recommended to Snyder that Ellsworth be placed on a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP).

         On December 2, 2011, Grubb met with Lauth to discuss the findings of his investigation and inform him that Ellsworth would be counseled on his behavior. On December 5, 2011, Lauth sent Grubb an email stating that the proposed discipline was "totally unacceptable" and expressing his belief that the investigation had not gone far enough. On January 10, 2012, Grubb's findings and proposed corrective actions were posted as follow-up comments to Lauth's ...

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