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Ellmann v. Amsted Rail Co., Inc.

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

September 12, 2019

KAREN ELLMANN, Plaintiff,
v.
AMSTED RAIL COMPANY, INC., Defendant,

          OPINION AND ORDER

          PHILIP P. SIMON, JUDGE

         Karen Ellmann claims that she was discriminated against because of her sex by her former employer, Amsted Rail Company, Inc. As the Human Resources Manager for Amsted from around 2014 to 2016, Ellmann's job duties included labor relations between Amsted and United Steel Workers Local 2003 (“USW”), the labor organization that represents Amsted's union employees. Ellmann was fired by Amsted citing what it says was her poor performance in managing labor relations with the union. Ellmann says she was fired because she is a woman. She also claims that she was subjected to a hostile work environment, and that when she filed a complaint about the discriminatory workplace, she was retailed against. Amsted seeks summary judgment on all claims. For the reasons discussed below, the motion for summary judgment is GRANTED IN PART. Summary judgment is warranted on the Title VII discrimination claim and hostile work environment claim. But a reasonable jury could conclude that Ellmann was retaliated against.

         Factual Background

         After working with the company since 2011, Ellmann accepted a promotion in 2014 to HR Manager at Amsted's facility in Hammond. [Ellmann Dep. at 28-32.] Ellmann's responsibilities included administering the collective bargaining agreement and maintaining good relations with union leadership, including frequent interaction with union chairperson, Eli Maya. [Luce Dep. at 78.] Additionally, Ellmann was expected to balance the interests of Amsted while also being an advocate and serving the needs of the union employees. [Id. at 59.] As the Hammond HR Manager, Ellmann originally reported to the facility General Manager, Mike Reeder. [Reeder Dep. at 11.]

         Within the first two or three months of her arrival at the Hammond plant, Ellmann began having problems with Maya. [Ellmann Dep. at 47.] These difficulties included comments from Maya about Ellmann's ability to do her job and questioning Ellmann's value at the company while using an aggressive tone. [Id. at 81.] Maya reported to Reeder that Ellmann had spoken with a condescending tone to union employees. [Reeder Dep. at 21.] Reeder spoke with Ellmann about the issue, but took no formal disciplinary action. [Id. at 22.]

         In January 2015, Reeder completed Ellmann's annual performance evaluation for October 1, 2013 - September 30, 2014, and Ellmann received an overall rating of “4.0- Outstanding” with positive comments. [Id. at 28-30.] Indeed, Reeder wrote the following comments at the end of Ellmann's review:

[Ellmann] has done an outstanding job of taking control of the human resource function and providing leadership and structure that was missing. . . . She has adapted very well to a union environment and understands when to seek guidance in those areas where she is not fully knowledgeable (mainly union contract issues and historical precedents). [Ellmann] has done a very good job in identifying gaps in HR systems and procedures and implementing actions to correct. Her integrity is above reproach; people are comfortable talking to [Ellmann] about their respective issues.

[Id. at 29-30; Reeder Dep. Ex. 16 at 9-10.]

         In late 2014 or early 2015, Director of Human Resources, Chris Dockery, took an oversight role with Hammond. [Dockery Dep. at 9-11, 22.] Dockery quickly observed shortcomings in Ellmann's performance. [Dockery Dep. at 27.] Dockery noted Ellmann did not know when employees had been terminated or the reasons for termination. [Id.] After an episode where HR was not involved in an employee termination, Dockery notified Ellmann that HR must always be involved. [Id. at 28-30.] Another employee was then discharged despite Ellmann being instructed to first discuss the termination with Dockery and Luce. [Id. at 30-31.] Dockery also noted the grievance process and company-led meetings had no structure, and relayed these concerns to Ellmann. [Id. at 27-28.]

         Around October 2015, Amsted negotiated a new contract with the union. [Luce Dep. at 80.] The bargaining team included Wayne Luce (Vice President of Human Resources), Dockery, Reeder, Ellmann, and Carey Bumgardner on behalf of Amsted, and Maya and four other people for USW. [Id. at 80-81.] During the negotiations, Maya publicly accused Ellmann of causing problems in labor relations. [Id. at 83.] Ellmann did not respond to the outburst, and managed to handle the situation very calmly. [Id. at 84.] Luce had observed Maya act aggressively in the past, but had never seen a personal attack towards management like this; nevertheless, Luce blamed Ellmann (and not Maya) for their poor working relationship. [Id. at 85-86.] Maya told Luce that he did not trust Ellmann - she was condescending and belittling in her interaction with union membership, not competent in administering the collective bargaining agreement, and not promoting good relations. [Luce Dep. at 71.]

         After the negotiation, Luce and Dockery took Maya aside and told him Dockery would help Ellmann improve the situation. [Id. at 84-85.] Luce then told Ellmann that she needed to build a better relationship with Maya. [Ellmann Dep. at 97-98.] While Luce acknowledged the outburst must have been uncomfortable for Ellmann, Luce told Ellmann what happened during the negotiation was “horrible” and it can't happen again. [Luce Dep. at 90-91.] Ellmann didn't think her job was in jeopardy at this point because in her experience, Luce's practice was to require documentation of any performance issues, and Ellmann was not put on a performance improvement plan. [Ellmann Dep. at 105-07; Luce Dep. at 113-14.]

         Ellmann then met with Reeder to discuss a plan to improve her work relationship with Maya. [Ellmann Dep. at 98.] Ellmann agreed to meet with Maya more regularly to become more acquainted and build a better relationship, so they began having weekly one-on-one meetings. [Id. at 98-99; 181.]

         Review time came around again and in Ellmann's 2015 review, Reeder rated Ellmann lower than her previous review with a “3.0-Strong, ” including positive and constructive comments and giving her objectives for the coming year including: (1) creating a development training plan for salaried employees and executing training needs; and (2) developing and executing a training program for the maintenance departments, referred to as the MMC program. [DE 69-6.] Reeder wrote in the review that Ellmann “has shown a true caring for the people and always looks to find the best balance between company and people's interests.” [Reeder Dep. at 33; Dep. Ex. 17 at 6.]

         As of early 2016, Dockery still noted concerns with Ellmann's performance, including missed deadlines, poor response times, and continued deficiencies in labor relations. [Dockery Dep. 70-73.] Dockery relayed these concerns directly to Ellmann. [Luce Dep. at 91.] Although Luce and Dockery thought Luce made it clear the need to improve labor relations and the potential impact on Ellmann's continued employment, at no point did Dockery tell Ellmann she would be terminated if she did not improve her relationship with Maya, and they never put Ellmann on a performance improvement plan. [Luce Dep. at 113-14; Ellmann Dep. at 189-90.] Luce instructed Dockery to provide coaching and training to Ellmann. [Luce Dep. at 91.] Subsequently, Ellmann was provided on-the-job training about labor relations by Dockery. [Dockery Dep. at 48-55.]

         Larry Moore is an employee that Ellmann argues was treated differently than her even though they were similarly situated. Moore was the HR Manager at the Hammond plant from approximately 2002 - 2011, and then switched to the safety manager. [Ellmann Dep. at 38.] When Moore was the HR manager, he did not receive any discipline, corrective action, or performance improvement plans. [Luce Dep. at 60.] By the time Ellmann was the HR manager, Moore was the safety manager. [Ellmann Dep. at 38.] Moore, like Ellmann, also reported to Reeder. [Id., Reeder Dep. at 11-12.] Maya and the union had problems with Moore as the safety manager because Moore was slow to fix things and respond to safety issues reported by the union. [Maya Dep. at 34.] Moore received coaching on the need to have a better sense of urgency when resolving safety issues. [Luce Dep. at 61.] After the 2015 contract negotiations, Moore and Maya attended off site counseling with each other to attempt to build their relationship. [Maya Dep. at 37-38.] In late 2015, Amsted placed Moore on a performance improvement plan due to errors and inaccurate recordkeeping in OSHA logs of recordable incidents. [Luce Dep. at 62-65.]

         In April 2016, Kevin Skibinski began transitioning into the Hammond General Manager position because Reeder was promoted to a different operation. [Skibinski Dep. at 10-11.] Skibinski quickly noticed tension among the workforce based on plant-wide meetings and employee complaints. [Id. at 25-26.] In June 2016, Skibinski emailed Dockery stating “intense plantwide meetings this week. Numerous personal attacks and evident [Ellmann] and Moore are not in good standings with union.” [Id. at 25; DE 69-9.] Skibinski thought that the union's issues with Moore were “more serious” because they were safety related. [Skibinski Dep. at 26-27.]

         Maya complained to Skibinski that Ellmann was difficult to work with, failed to follow up on things, was unprepared or had inaccurate information for meetings, walked out of meetings with the union, failed to schedule grievance meetings timely, and was condescending to employees. [Id. at 30.] According to Skibinski, while complaints from unions are not uncommon, in Ellmann's case, Skibinski thought the complaints were “becoming very excessive.” [Id.]

         In August 2016, Skibinski met with Ellmann regarding the MMC program (a maintenance development program), one of the tasks outlined in her review. [Skibinski Dep. at 38-40.] Amsted received several complaints that Ellmann had allegedly not completed timely audits for the MMC program and that the employees were unable to be ranked a rating of “5” within the program (foreclosing them from receiving a corresponding pay increase). [Id.] Ellmann tried to explain, and denied that she locked out employees from receiving a “5” rating, however Skibinski removed the program from Ellmann's responsibilities, but still took no disciplinary action against her. [Ellmann Dep. at 136-38; Skibinski Dep. at 39-40.] Ellmann did not take the revocation to mean that he was blaming her for the problems within the MMC program. [Ellmann Dep. at 139.]

         In early September 2016, Skibinski explained that he would not be giving Ellmann credit for two of her personal goals for incentive pay that were identified in her 2015 review. [Skibinski Dep. at 41.] In addition to audits not being conducted within the MMC program, Skibinski informed Ellmann that not all salaried employees in Hammond had development plans, which was another goal for Ellmann. [DE 67-12 at 4.] While Ellmann agreed that the tasks were incomplete, she disagreed that it was her fault. [Ellmann Dep. at 139-40.]

         Later that same month, in mid-September 2016, Ellmann left a grievance meeting because she became upset when Maya called her out in front of superiors. [Skibinski Dep. at 45.] Specifically, Maya said that Ellmann was lying, and Ellmann became upset and left the meeting. [Maya Dep. at 82.] Ellmann returned to the meeting a few minutes later, and the meeting was concluded without further incident. [Maya Dep. at 82-84.] Later the same month, Skibinski e-mailed Dockery, outlining more of his concerns with Ellmann's performance, including that Ellmann was not prepared for a meeting and she made a facial expression in a meeting about an employee's retirement check which implied, “wow, that's all you are getting?” [Skibinski Dep. at 33-37.]

         In late September 2016, USW began circulating a petition to union employees calling for Ellmann to be removed from her HR position. [Maya Dep. at 96; DE 67-6.] The petition stated as follows:

We the USW Local 2003 are requesting that Karen Ellman [sic.] be removed from her position as HR. She has been very unprofessional to the workers. Our union officials have brought this issue up to management and Karen continues to treat employee [sic.] very unprofessional ...

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