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Huttle v. Porter Hospital, LLC

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, Hammond Division

July 17, 2019

DONALD HUTTLE, Plaintiff,
v.
PORTER HOSPITAL, LLC, D/B/A PORTER REGIONAL HOSPITAL, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          JOSEPH S. VAN BOKKELEN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Defendant-employer Porter Hospital, LLC, moves for summary judgment against Plaintiff-employee Donald Huttle on his age-discrimination claim. For the reasons below, this Court denies Defendant's motion.

         A. Overview of the Case

          In 2011, Plaintiff began working full-time as a security officer for Defendant. (DE 43-2 at 2.) He served under supervisors Robert O'Dea and Rick Owens. (Id. at 3.) Four years later, in 2015, Defendant placed its security department under the command of Christian Goss, the director of engineering. (Id. at 4; DE 43-3 at 4.) On June 18, 2015, Plaintiff was escorted to a meeting with Mr. Goss and some members of human resources. (Id. at 15.) At that meeting, Defendant terminated Plaintiff as part of a reduction in force (the “Reduction”). (Id. at 15-16.) Defendant did not explain the reason for Plaintiff's termination, but assured Plaintiff that it was not performance related. (Id. at 16.)

         Defendant put Mr. Goss in charge of determining who would be let go as part of the Reduction. (DE 43-3 at 15.) To facilitate this process, Mr. Goss completed a form (the “Evaluation”) in which he rated employees on the basis of certain categories, including relevant job experience and attendance. (DE 43-5.) Mr. Goss remained ultimately responsible for the information on the Evaluation, which played a significant role in deciding who would be let go. (Id. at 17, 20.) Overall, the Reduction claimed ten security officers, two of whom were full-time. (DE 43-5.) Plaintiff was one of those two. (Id.)

         Plaintiff, then 64 years old, was among the bottom two full-time security officers according to the Evaluation. (Id.) On the other hand, Justin Thomas, a then-28-year-old full-time security officer who survived the Reduction, had the second-highest score. (Id.) Plaintiff claims that Mr. Goss terminated him on the basis of his age and points to Mr. Thomas as a similarly-situated younger employee who received more favorable treatment.[1] (DE 47 at 8.) As for the Evaluation, Plaintiff paints it as a “sham.” (Id. at 12.) Subsequently, Plaintiff filed an age-discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”). (DE 43-7.) The EEOC, being unable to conclude that Defendant committed a violation, sent Plaintiff a notice of right to sue. (DE 43-9.) Plaintiff then timely filed the instant complaint. (DE 1.)

         B. Standard of Review

          To succeed on summary judgment, Defendant must “show[] that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact” and that Defendant “is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). Defendant can meet this burden by “identify[ing] those portions of the record that demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.” Johnson v. City of Fort Wayne, 91 F.3d 922, 931 (7th Cir. 1996). Because Plaintiff bears the burden of proof on the issue underlying the complaint, “he must then go beyond the pleadings and affirmatively demonstrate a genuine issue of material fact for trial” by “demonstrat[ing] that the record, taken as a whole, could permit a rational finder of fact to rule in favor of” Plaintiff. Id. As the non-moving party, Plaintiff is entitled to “the benefit of conflicts in the evidence and any reasonable inferences in [his] favor.” Perez v. Thorntons, Inc., 731 F.3d 699, 700 (7th Cir. 2013).

         The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”) prohibits employers from “discharg[ing] any individual . . . because of such individual's age.” 29 U.S.C. § 623(a). To survive summary judgment without direct evidence of discrimination, the plaintiff must first establish a prima facie case by showing that “(1) he is a member of a protected class; (2) he reasonably performed his job to his employer's expectations; (3) he was subject to an adverse employment action; and (4) other similarly situated employees who were substantially younger than him were treated more favorably.” Radue v. Kimberly-Clark Corp., 219 F.3d 612, 617 (7th Cir. 2000). The employer must then “articulate a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for discharging” the plaintiff. Id. If the employer does so, the plaintiff needs to show that the given reason is mere pretext, or else the employer wins on summary judgment. Collier v. Budd Co., 66 F.3d 886, 889 (7th Cir. 1995). To establish pretext, “a plaintiff must show that [the] employer is lying, not merely that [the] employer is wrong.” Collins v. Am. Red Cross, 715 F.3d 994, 1000 (7th Cir. 2013). The ultimate question, however, is “whether a reasonable jury could infer prohibited discrimination.” Perez, 731 F.3d at 703.

         C. Analysis

         Defendant concedes that Plaintiff was in a protected class (over age 40), was performing to Defendant's legitimate expectation, and was discharged. However, Defendant disputes whether similarly situated younger employees were treated more favorably. For his part, Plaintiff contends that the Evaluation, which constituted a reason for his discharge, is mere pretext and is thus invalid. Because Defendant's attack on Plaintiff's prima facie case is based in large part on the validity of the Evaluation, this Court addresses the pretext component first.

         (1) A Reasonable Jury Could Find that the Evaluation Is Mere Pretext

         At the outset, the ADEA does not turn this Court into a human-resources appeals council. Dale v. Chicago Tribune Co., 797 F.2d 458, 464 (7th Cir. 1986) (“This Court does not sit as a super-personnel department that reexamines an entity's business decisions.”). Hence, Plaintiff cannot survive summary judgment by merely disagreeing with the Evaluation. Anderson v. Stauffer Chem. Co., 965 F.2d 397, 403 (7th Cir. 1992). Nor will a supervisor's assurances of Plaintiff's quality create a genuine issue of material fact. Dey v. Colt Const. & Dev. Co., 28 F.3d 1446, 1460 (7th Cir. 1994). Here, however, Plaintiff has gone further by unleashing a full-on factual assault on the Evaluation, which, if fully credited, destroys any credibility the Evaluation may have had. Cf. Id. at 1460-61 (“A detailed refutation of events which underlie the employer's negative performance assessment demonstrates that the employer may not have honestly relied on the identified deficiencies in making its decision.”). In other words, Plaintiff's evidence suggests that the Evaluation itself may be a lie.

         (a) Plaintiff's Evidence Questions the Validity of ...


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