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Houghton v. Sunnen Products Co.

May 4, 2010

DALE HOUGHTON, PLAINTIFF,
v.
SUNNEN PRODUCTS CO., DEFENDANT.



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

OPINION

Plaintiff Dale Houghton, brings this employment discrimination action against his former employer, Defendant Sunnen Products Company ("Sunnen"), alleging state law age discrimination, retaliation, and breach of contract claims. Sunnen moves for summary judgment. Houghton cross-moves for partial summary judgment. For the reasons stated herein, Sunnen's Motion will be granted in part and denied in part.

Houghton's Motion will be denied.*fn1

I.

Sunnen manufactures highly specialized honing equipment that has two separate applications. The equipment can be used for automotive engine rebuilding, or it can be used on industrial machines. Prior to mid-2007, Sunnen's sales force was divided accordingly; Sunnen had "automotive" sales people and "industrial" sales people, each assigned to a specific geographic territory.

Houghton was employed as an automotive sales person for approximately 20 years. His sales territory encompassed, at various times, New Jersey, Delaware, Eastern Pennsylvania, New York City, Long Island, the New England states, Maryland, the Northern half of Virginia, and the Northern half of West Virginia. (Houghton Dep. p. 21-22)*fn2 It is undisputed that Houghton's performance, relative to other Sunnen sales people, was "better than average." (Def's Response to Pl's Statement of Undisputed Facts ("SUF") ¶ 9)

Then, in 2007, as part of a reduction in force ("RIF"), Sunnen decided to eliminate its automotive sales division, choosing, instead, to employ independent contractors to sell a more limited selection of automotive honing equipment.*fn3 The parties do not dispute that the RIF eliminated the positions of all automotive sales people, including Houghton, who was 61 years old at the time. (Pl's Resp. To Def's SUF ¶ 11)*fn4

In June, 2007, Sunnen held company-wide sales meetings at their headquarters in St. Louis. Two separate meetings are of relevance to the instant case: an industrial sales meeting and an automotive sales meeting.

At the meeting of industrial sales people, Sunnen does not dispute that management raised the issue of retirement with certain older salesmen. What exactly was said, and the tone of the meeting, however, are disputed. According to Sunnen's 30(b)(6) witness*fn5 , Sunnen was not suggesting that anyone should retire; rather it was only asking that it be given sufficient advance notice of anyone's independently chosen retirement date, so as to allow for time to find a suitable replacement and ensure a smooth transition. (Cereola 30(b)(6) Dep. p. 103-04) On the other hand, according to Karl Beher, a 61 year-old industrial salesman who attended the meeting, he believed he was being "pressured to retire, regardless of performance," (Riback Cert. Ex. B) and it made him feel "very uncomfortable." (Behr Dep. p. 18, 24)

Four people attended the automotive sales meeting: Houghton, Doug Treutelaar, Rick Saindon, and Bob Dolder. It is undisputed that at the meeting, management announced that only two of the four men would be retained in other sales positions. (Def's Response to Pl's SUF ¶ 30) It is also undisputed that by the time the meeting was held, Sunnen had already decided to retain Saindon and Dolder and give them training in industrial sales. (Id. ¶¶ 30, 34) Houghton and Treutelaar, who are older than Saindon and Dolder, were not given the same opportunity to re- train as industrial salesmen. Sunnen offered Houghton and Treutelaar independent contractor positions selling Sunnen's remaining automotive honing equipment.*fn6

Another younger automotive salesman, Richard Woodward, was also retained. Sunnen created a new position for him rather than offering him an independent contractor position. (Schallenberg Dep. p. 21, 23, 25; Cereola 30(b)(6) Dep. p. 92) Sunnen initially offered Woodward an industrial sales position in the Florida territory, but Woodward declined the offer. (Cereola Dep. p. 28-29) Even after Woodward declined the Florida industrial position, Sunnen gave the spot to a newly-hired, 36 year-old salesman, rather than offering the spot to Houghton. (Def's Response to Pl's SUF ¶ 70; Cereola 30(b)(6) Dep. p. 30)

Houghton, unwilling to accept the independent contractor position, and having been offered no other position with Sunnen, requested a severance. In a written letter dated December 21, 2007, Sunnen offered Houghton a "retirement arrangement" which included three months base pay and benefits through the end of January, 2008. (Butler Cert. Ex. E) The letter included a signature line where Houghton could "accept" the terms of the "proposed" arrangement. (Id.)

Houghton told a payroll representative, and then his supervisor, that he would not sign the letter. He testified at his deposition,

A: There was a letter of retirement and three months severance pay and [it] told me to sign it and send it back.

Q: Did you do that?

A: No.

Q: And why not?

A: I didn't retire.

Q: Did anyone advise you that you had to sign any kind of paperwork before you could get your severance?

A: Yeah, I got a telephone call from [a woman in the Payroll Department] and she told me she had my severance pay but couldn't send it until I signed the letter.

Q: What did you tell her?

A: I told her I didn't retire, I wasn't ...


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