Lenhart v. General Elec. Co., 3:99CV174-V.

Decision Date26 March 2001
Docket NumberNo. 3:99CV174-V.,3:99CV174-V.
Citation140 F.Supp.2d 582
CourtU.S. District Court — Western District of North Carolina
PartiesJohn A. LENHART, Plaintiff, v. GENERAL ELECTRIC COMPANY, Defendant.

John W. Gresham, Ferguson, Stein, Wallas, Gresham & Sumter, P.A., Charlotte, NC, for Plaintiff.

G. Scott Humphrey, Moore & Van Allen, Charlotte, NC, for Defendants.


HORN, Chief United States Magistrate Judge.

THIS MATTER is before the Court on Defendant's "Motion for Summary Judgment" (document # 23), "Memorandum in Support" (document # 24), and "Appendix in Support" (document # 25), all filed January 16, 2001. "Plaintiff's Response ..." (document # 28) was filed February 20, 2001; and "Defendant's ... Reply" (document # 32) was filed March 14, 2001. On March 21, 2001, the Plaintiff filed a "Motion to File Further Response ..." (document # 34) and "Plaintiff's Further Response ..." (document # 35).

The instant motions have been referred to the undersigned Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B), and are now ripe for disposition.

Having carefully considered the parties' arguments, the record, and the applicable authority, the undersigned will grant Plaintiff's Motion to File Further Response and will respectfully recommend that Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment be granted.


This is an action for damages and equitable relief under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 ("ADEA"), as amended, 29 U.S.C. § 621 et seq., and the public policy of North Carolina.

Defendant General Electric Company ("GE") is a New York corporation doing business through 12 unincorporated operating divisions, including GE Lighting ("GEL"). GEL is headquartered in Cleveland, Ohio, and operates roughly 26 manufacturing plants and eight distribution centers in North America, together with a sales organization spread throughout North America in field sales offices.

Plaintiff John A. Lenhart, date of birth January 28, 1947,1 was first employed with GEL in August 1969, and by December 1994, had advanced to the position of Commercial and Industrial ("C & I") Regional Sales Manager in Charlotte, North Carolina.2 In that role, he headed up the regional sales office and supervised between ten to twenty sales representatives. Mr. Lenhart reported directly to the C & I General Manager, Stan Davis.3

The Plaintiff alleges that sometime prior to November 1996, Mr. Davis made statements that older workers were "traditional rather than contemporary" and "lacked capacity for change."4 However, Mr. Davis and Mr. Lenhart are separated in age by only eight months, had known each other for thirty years, and began their careers with GEL together as trainees. Prior to his discharge, Mr. Lenhart had never made any age-related complaint against GEL or any of his supervisors and desired to remain at GEL until retirement.

In December 1994, GEL created the Grainger National Account Manager position as part of a strategy to devote a team of field salespersons to one customer exclusively, in this case, Grainger. Ron Cantlie, located in Cleveland, was the Supervisor of the Grainger team.5

The initial Grainger National Account Managers were: Matt Castro in New Jersey, Christine Thomas in Atlanta, Byron Webster in Cleveland, Bob West in Dallas, Dan Wilkinson in Chicago, and Keith Young in San Francisco.6

In April 1995, Mr. Lenhart became the seventh Grainger National Account Manager and remained in Charlotte, North Carolina. Mr. Lenhart no longer reported directly to Mr. Davis, but instead reported to Mr. Cantlie, who, in turn, reported to Mr. Davis. In May or June 1996, Matt Castro resigned and was not replaced, leaving six Grainger National Account Managers.

The Plaintiff admits that all of the Grainger National Account Managers were "very capable people" who did a "good job" and that the Grainger National Account Manager team was very successful. In their most recent performance evaluations prior to November 1996, the Plaintiff, Mr. Wilkinson, Mr. Webster, and Ms. Thomas all received the same rating — four on a five point scale — which signified "exceeds requirements of position." Mr. West and Mr. Young received a three or "meets all requirements of the position."

In 1996, GEL began experiencing financial problems and determined that in order to meet its internal net income commitments to GE, overhead would have to be significantly reduced. In early 1996, and in preparation for possible layoffs, GEL Human Resources ("HR") Manager Dick Suttell7 prepared a preliminary evaluation of over 450 GEL employees and ranked Keith Young as the lowest rated Grainger National Account Manager, Bob West as next lowest, and Christine Thomas as third lowest.

On November 5, 1996, and as part of a layoff of 4% of GEL's employees division-wide,8 Stan Davis, was instructed to (1) eliminate 26 salaried C & I sales positions, from 266 to 240 by year end, and (2) reduce controllable overhead costs for 1997 by $1.5 million. The targeted layoff date was the week of November 18, 1996.9

As part of the overall layoffs within GEL's C & I sales force, Mr. Davis instructed Ron Cantlie to lay off two Grainger National Account Managers. Mr. Cantlie initially opposed any reduction-in-force ("RIF"), citing the success of the program and the overall performance of the group, but Mr. Davis rejected this attempt to "push back" the layoffs.

GEL uses an established set of written guidelines, including the RIF Identification Matrix, to rank salaried employees for layoffs. The supervisor, in this instance Mr. Cantlie, ranks employees in four categories, which are defined in the RIF Guidelines: Historical Performance, Flexibility, Criticality of Skills, and Company Service. The RIF guidelines provide that rankings are to "be principally based" on the employee's performance over the previous 12 to 24 months. Because the Grainger National Account Manager team had existed for less than two years, Mr. Cantlie also looked at each employee's sales figures from his or her previous position. Mr. Cantlie's undisputed deposition testimony is that he did not use Mr. Suttell's earlier evaluation — of Mr. Young, Mr. West, and Ms. Thomas — in preparing the RIF Identification Matrix and had not even seen it prior to his deposition.

Because Mr. Cantlie was ranking six employees, they were each ranked in each category from I (best) to 6 (worst).10 Employees with the highest total scores are typically eliminated, but the policy does allow for exceptions. On November 7, 1996, Mr. Cantlie completed a RIF Identification Matrix for the six Grainger National Account Managers. His rankings were as follows:

                                        Historical               Criticality  Company
                Name/Region Performance Flexibility of Skills Service Total
                Young (San Francisco)        4           4           4            6      18
                Lenhart (Charlotte)          5           5           5            2      17
                West (Dallas)                2           6           6            1      15
                Wilkinson (Chicago)          6           2           2            4      14
                Thomas (Atlanta)             3           3           3            5      14
                Webster (Cleveland)          1           1           1            3       6

Using this system, Keith Young and the Plaintiff had the highest — that is, the worst — total score. As the policy allows, Mr. Cantlie made the decision to retain Mr. Young in San Francisco and lay off Mr. West.11 However, irrespective of Mr. Cantlie's treatment of Mr. West, Mr. Lenhart was one of the two lowest ranked managers. Mr. Cantlie planned for Mr. Lenhart's Charlotte region to be absorbed by Ms. Thomas in Atlanta. Mr. Cantlie's recommendation to eliminate Mr. Lenhart and Mr. West's positions was reviewed and approved by HR Manager Suttell and by Mr. Davis. Mr. Suttell testified that upon receipt of Mr. Cantlie's RIF Identification Matrix, he "drastically changed" his earlier evaluation.

The only other evidence that Plaintiff offers relating to age discrimination in GEL's decision to terminate him is his unsupported opinion that he was one of the top three Grainger National Account Managers. However, the Plaintiff admitted in his deposition that none of his superiors had ever told him that he was one of the "top three" or that he was better than even one of the other Grainger National Account Managers.

GEL employees identified for elimination are provided a "notice" period, during which the employee receives full pay and benefits but no longer performs his job and, instead, focuses his efforts on finding new employment. Employees with less than ten years of service receive 30 days notice while those with ten or more years of service receive 60 days notice.

Under GEL's RIF Guidelines, a salaried employee with 20 or more years of service is also eligible to receive a Best Possible Offer ("BPO"). A BPO is defined as the most suitable position within GEL that can be identified for the employee during the employee's RIF "notice" period described above. If an employee refuses a BPO, he forfeits all severance pay and benefits.

On November 20, 1996, Ron Cantlie flew to Charlotte and told Mr. Lenhart in person that his position was being eliminated. Mr. Cantlie provided the Plaintiff with information relative to employee benefits and suggested he call Dick Suttell with any further questions. Mr. Lenhart did not perform any more work for GEL beyond November 20, 1996, and began looking for other employment both inside and outside GEL.

Because Mr. Lenhart had more than 27 years of service, his notice period was initially 60 days — through January 31, 1997 — but was extended by Mr. Suttell, at Plaintiff's request, through April 4, 1997.12 Mr. Cantlie's layoff letter and a subsequent letter from Mr. Suttell stated that GEL would attempt to identify a BPO for Mr. Lenhart during his notice period. Although Mr....

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