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Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Oak Lane Printing

December 20, 2007

EQUAL EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITY COMMISSION, PLAINTIFF,
v.
OAK LANE PRINTING DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hillman, District Judge

OPINION

Plaintiff Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") filed a complaint alleging that defendant Oak Lane Printing ("Oak Lane") violated the Federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, 29 U.S.C. § 626(b) ("ADEA") when it terminated the employment of David Rice and Thomas Everly. Oak Lane filed a motion for summary judgment seeking dismissal of the EEOC's complaint. For the reasons expressed below, Oak Lane's motion is denied.

I. JURISDICTION

As alleged violations of the ADEA implicate federal question jurisdiction, this matter is properly before the Court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331.

II. BACKGROUND

This case involves the termination of two employees, David Rice and Thomas Everly, by their employer, Oak Lane Printing. Plaintiff, the EEOC, filed a complaint on March 30, 2006 claiming that Oak Lane violated the ADEA when it terminated Messrs. Rice and Everly.

Oak Lane is primarily engaged in the business of printing and has approximately 60 employees. In July 2004, Oak Lane acquired Chapel Hill Printing and moved its operations, with the exception of the web press equipment and web operators, from Pennsylvania to New Jersey. Within months, this acquisition put Oak Lane in financial difficulty. Oak Lane maintains that it needed to cut approximately $250,000 from its budget to remain financially viable. Oak Lane argues that its decision to cut certain employees was based upon which employees made the highest wages and was not made to terminate older employees in violation of the AEDA.

A. David Rice

David Rice began his employment with Oak Lane in 1967 after completing high school and trade school courses in printing. Mr. Rice worked for Oak Lane in 1967 for three months, left and returned to Oak Lane from 1969 to 1973, left and returned again in 1977. Mr. Rice alleges that he left Oak Lane during these periods because the commute was too far, he wanted to change his work hours, and wanted increased salary. When Mr. Rice returned to Oak Lane the first time in 1969 he primarily worked as a presser on the sheet-fed press. When he returned to work in 1977, he worked as a feeder operator, and after approximately seven months, transferred to a pressman where he remained for approximately thirteen years.

In 1990, Mr. Rice injured his back while on the job and was out of work for approximately 26 months on workers' compensation. Mr. Rice was cleared by defendant's workers' compensation physician to return to work in 1992. Mr. Rice admitted that Oak Lane could not hold his job as pressman open for two years while he was out due to his back injury, but stated that if one were available he would have pursued that position.

Mr. Rice was hired instead as a truck driver for Oak Lane and worked in that position for approximately two years. Mr. Rice requested to be transferred to a position inside the printing plant and was transferred to the bindery department where he worked as a helper assisting the folders on the folding machines.*fn1 Thereafter, Mr. Rice moved to the shipping department for an increase in salary and worked there for approximately two years. In or about 2001, Oak Lane transferred Mr. Rice into the plate-making department where he worked for approximately one year. Mr. Rice states that Oak Lane moved him to this department because he had experience in plate making from his work as a pressman. When plate-making became more technologically advanced, the position of plate-maker became obsolete and Oak Lane offered Mr. Rice a position in its front office. Mr. Rice remained doing office work for about eight months until the fall of 2003 when he was transferred back to the bindery department where he remained until he was terminated in October 2004.

The parties disagree over the title of Mr. Rice's position in the bindery department at the time of his termination. The EEOC asserts that Mr. Rice's position was folder operator, while Oak Lane maintains that he was a bindery helper. The EEOC argues that the fact that Mr. Rice reported to the bindery supervisor, Harry Thron, confirms that Mr. Rice was a folder operator since Mr. Thron only dealt with folder operators and did not interact with bindery helpers. Oak Lane argues that Mr. Rice was a bindery helper and his position was assumed by the remaining bindery helpers ages 55, 42 and 30.

Both parties agree that Mr. Rice worked on the folding machine and was trained by folder operator, Maureen Connelly.

Ms. Connelly testified at her deposition that Mr. Thron instructed her to train Mr. Rice on the folder machine. She also stated that at times, she and Mr. Rice would work on a folder and would have a bindery helper assist them. Ms. Connelly described Mr. Rice as an "operator-in-training" which included the duties of a folder operator. In July 2004, Ms. Connelly resigned, and Mr. Rice worked on the folder machine until his lay-off in October 2004.

Shortly before Ms. Connelly resigned, in July 2004 Oak Lane purchased Chapel Printing located in New Jersey. As a result of this acquisition, Oak Lane moved its bindery department from Pennsylvania to New Jersey and Mr. Rice was transferred to the New Jersey facility. Also at this time, Oak Lane hired Shawn McLernon, 35 years old, as a web press helper.

Mr. Rice maintains that each time he was transferred to a new department Oak Lane knew that he had a desire to return to his original position as a pressman. Mr. Rice testified in deposition that he asked several managers at Oak Lane, including Oak Lane's former pressroom supervisor, Charles Kneale, if he could return to the presses, all of whom stated that it would be no problem for him return to the presses. Mr. Kneale testified that he recalled that Mr. Rice reminded him about his interest in any pressroom openings approximately six times in over three years.

Despite his entreaties, Mr. Rice never returned to working as a pressman. Several reasons are offered by the parties as to why. Mr. Rice stated that George Dusak, Oak Lane's chief operating officer, told the pressroom supervisor, Charles Kneale, and lead pressman, Thomas Everly, that he (Mr. Dusak) would not let Mr. Rice return to work on the presses. Mr. Dusak testified in deposition that Mr. Rice was not selected as a web press helper or pressman because Charles Kneale and Thomas Everly did not want him working in the pressroom. However, Mr. Kneale testified in deposition that he approached Mr. Dusak and Mr. Maurizzio about Mr. Rice's requests, and they told him "absolutely no." Mr. Kneale also testified Lisa Palmer, Oak Lane's Chief Financial Officer, stated that Mr. Rice was "a comp case waiting to happen." In addition, Mr. Kneale testified that Mr. Maurizzio had a vendetta against Mr. Rice. Oak Lane denies this characterization and maintains that Mr. Kneale and Mr. Everly told Mr. Maurizzio that they did not want Mr. Rice to work in the pressroom because they thought the job was too physically demanding for Mr. Rice.

In October 2004, Mr. Rice was told that he was being laid-off by bindery supervisor, Harry Thron. At that time, there were five employees retained in the bindery department. Of the bindery helpers, Lye-Sim Chan was 55 years old and making $12/hour, Gary Barton was 42 years old and making $12/hour, and Amy Thompson was 30 years old and making $12.50/hour. The other two employees were folder operators Joseph Snuffin who was 41 years old and Paul DeMille who was 40 years old.*fn2 Oak Lane asserts that the decision to lay-off Mr. Rice was made by Mr. Dusak. Oak Lane maintains that the reason for Mr. Rice's termination was that the acquisition of Chapel Printing left them financially strapped and they had to lay-off employees in order to remain financially viable. At the time of his lay-off, Mr. Rice was 55 years old and making $12/hour.

Approximately two days following his lay-off, Mr. Rice returned to defendant's facility to discuss his lay-off with the owner Michael Dubowitch.*fn3 Mr. Dubowitch told Mr. Rice that the decision to lay him off was "purely economics." Despite defendant's alleged reasons, Mr. Rice believes that he was laid off because he ...


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