Bellaver v. Quanex Corp./Nichols Homeshield

Decision Date18 January 2000
Docket NumberNo. 98-3708,98-3708
Citation200 F.3d 485
Parties(7th Cir. 2000) Elizabeth C.O. Bellaver, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Quanex Corp./Nichols-Homeshield, Defendant-Appellee
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Seventh Circuit

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 97 C 7637--Charles R. Norgle, Sr.,Judge. [Copyrighted Material Omitted]

[Copyrighted Material Omitted] Before Kanne, Diane P. Wood and Evans, Circuit Judges.

Kanne, Circuit Judge.

Elizabeth Bellaver's departure from her employer of twenty years, the Quanex Corp. of Houston, Texas, came at a time of significant reorganization for the company. Ordinarily, economic downturns and shakeups provide an employer great latitude in making personnel decisions. However, Congress refuses to afford an employer at any time--economically fortuitous or economically disastrous--the right to discriminate on the basis of sex, which is the question at the heart of this complaint.

After being discharged by Quanex, Bellaver sued under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act ("Act"), claiming that she was fired because her employer disapproved of her aggressive and sometimes abrasive style while permitting the same characteristics in male employees. Quanex contends that Bellaver was the victim of an economic reorganization that had more to do with her position than her person. On that theory, the district court granted Quanex summary judgment. We review the district court's decision de novo and reverse.

I. History
A. Quanex Corp.

The defendant in this case, Quanex Corp., is a Houston-based company engaged in the manufacture of metal products with offices and facilities in several states. In 1989, it acquired Nichols- Homeshield, Inc., and its Homeshield Fabricated Products Division ("HFP"). Nichols-Homeshield specialized in the production of a wide variety of aluminum products, while HFP focused on products for home remodeling. HFP had administrative offices near St. Charles, Illinois, and a production facility 100 miles away in Chatsworth, Illinois. In 1997, Quanex merged HFP with AMSCO, another division which specialized in products used in the manufacture and installation of windows.

During the various acquisitions and mergers, Quanex, like many modern companies, found it fiscally beneficial to eliminate and consolidate positions and layoff some employees. Specifically, the restructuring meant the closing of a Nichols-Homeshield office in Illinois and the transfer or consolidation of those jobs to Texas. In 1991 and 1992, six Nichols employees were laid off, but never more than one in any month. Quanex attributed these layoffs to the restructuring and called them "reductions in force" ("RIFs"), a term of art in employment law meaning the positions were eliminated and the employees not replaced. In March 1993, another employee was laid off, but in April 1993, the sporadic restructuring became a full-fledged wave of pink slips when ten employees were terminated. The second wave hit the next month when five employees were let go. Both of these waves of layoffs also were characterized as RIFs.

In 1994, no one from the Nichols operation was laid off; and in 1995 and 1996, only one employee was laid off each year. On March 18, 1997, Quanex laid off Elizabeth C.O. Bellaver, HFP's business development manager, in what Quanex characterized as a one-person reduction-in-force.

B. Elizabeth C.O. Bellaver

Bellaver began work as an Ohio-based "field sales representative" for Nichols-Homeshield in 1977, covering a territory that spanned seven states plus Ontario, Canada. In 1983, she received a master's in business administration from Kent State University, and in 1985, she moved with her family to St. Charles where she became a marketing manager for Nichols- Homeshield. Her responsibilities in the new position greatly exceeded her former duties in sales and included marketing research, distribution, economic forecasting, advertising, promotions and planning. In 1988, the company promoted her to "Product Manager, Engineered Products" in the HFP division with responsibility for five product lines. In 1992, Bellaver was promoted again, this time to "Product Manager" in charge of twelve product lines. In this position, she reported to Michael Penny, the vice president and general manager of the HFP division.

In 1995, the possibility arose that the product manager position for HFP would be transferred from St. Charles to Chatsworth. Bellaver told Penny she would be willing to commute to keep the job, but according to Bellaver's testimony, Penny responded that "it would not work well for [Bellaver and her] family." Another employee, a man named Doug Seanor, also talked to Penny about commuting for the job. Seanor, who lived with his family near St. Charles in Geneva, Illinois, testified that Penny indicated that he could have the job if he wanted it, and commuting was not a problem so long as he was at work from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Penny denied Seanor's version of events and said he did not offer the job to Seanor. Penny claimed he expressed the same concern about Seanor commuting as he did Bellaver. A second woman from outside the company also interviewed for the job but was rejected in favor of a male employee who already worked at the Chatsworth facility.

In February 1996, Bellaver was promoted to "business development manager" in HFP, a position in which she would prepare market research, identify growth opportunities and direct new sales efforts. This assignment included responsibility for the HMI project, a plan to sell HFP products to small clients at premium prices. The company hoped the new HMI initiative would turn a profit by October 1997, although apparently it did not meet its goals in 1996 and was still performing below expectations in early 1997. She served in this position at a salary of $79,398 until she was fired in April 1997.

C. Bellaver's Evaluations

Bellaver consistently scored in the high or highest ranges on her annual employee evaluations, with many marks of "outstanding," "excellent" and "exceeds expectations," including reviews conducted by Penny. She was frequently praised for her intelligence, ability, attitude and understanding of her responsibilities, the market and the company's products. In 1996, Penny noted that Bellaver's "[p]roblem solving [and] decision making skills leave nothing to be desired." In that year, she completed a market study that Penny called "thorough and contains opportunities to grow our business." Other aspects of her performance likewise received marks of outstanding or "exceeds expectations."

Alongside the high praise Penny gave to Bellaver in her annual reviews ran a continuous strain of displeasure at her personal skills. In 1993, while calling her a "bright and talented employee" with "excellent judgment," Penny noted that "Elizabeth is making progress in her interpersonal skills. In dealing with others, she is continuing to be direct and demanding but less offensive." In 1994, Penny wrote, "Elizabeth is working to improve her interpersonal issues that cause, or at least impact, team performance that needs improvement." In that review, Penny listed as a goal for Bellaver to "heighten awareness of behavior issue." Her behavior and style also were noted as problems in 1995 and 1996.

The evaluations do not provide concrete examples of Bellaver's behavior or style upon which Penny's evaluations were based. However, an earlier evaluation, this one from 1984 and also conducted by a male supervisor, focused on Bellaver's difficulty in dealing with subordinate employees. That evaluation noted that she was "[a] poor listener. Not too tolerant of the less than very bright. Does not always allow two-way communications. Insensitive often to current social environment."

In deposition testimony, Penny reported that employee complaints alerted him to Bellaver's interpersonal problem. Penny cited two employees, Ron Arbizzani and Doug Breen, who had complained about Bellaver. Both employees also had problems with interpersonal communication. On one occasion, Breen lost his temper at a meeting of several managers. However, the employee evaluations of Breen and Arbizzani did not contain the same type of criticism as Bellaver's reviews.

D. Patricia Shaw

Patricia Shaw, the human resources manager for Nichols-Homeshield who had been terminated in 1992 due to an alleged reduction in force, testified that she spoke to Penny several times about Bellaver. Shaw believed Bellaver was a good employee and repeatedly told Penny that male engineers at the company viewed a woman's assertive behavior negatively. That attitude reflected a double standard, in Shaw's view, because the same trait was viewed positively in men. Shaw testified that the engineers treated Bellaver "unfairly as a woman" and that the company's "good ol' boy" network attempted to keep women out of the male-dominated world.

Still, Shaw believed Penny shared her view and treated Bellaver fairly and equally. Shaw further believed Penny considered assertiveness a positive trait in female managers. Shaw investigated two complaints about Bellaver and concluded that Bellaver had "gone somewhat overboard" in dealing with co-workers. Shaw characterized the difficulty as a communication problem with co-workers who disapproved of her manner and authority in issuing orders.

At the time of Shaw's discharge in 1992, Quanex referred to the decision to terminate her employment as a "reduction in force." Shaw, however, was replaced by a male and the real reason for Shaw's termination appears to involve the company's labor trouble at the time. Quanex admitted in its brief that "[p]erhaps Quanex's calling Shaw's termination a RIF was not accurate . . . However, it is hardly unusual or discriminatory that an employer may offer a face saving explanation to an employee being...

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