Roberts v. Uscc Payroll Corp., C07-3071-MWB.

Decision Date17 July 2009
Docket NumberNo. C07-3071-MWB.,C07-3071-MWB.
Citation635 F.Supp.2d 948
PartiesTeresa ROBERTS, Colleen Sanders and Deanna Schliske, Plaintiffs, v. USCC Payroll Corporation and Bonnie Hruska, Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — Northern District of Iowa

Thomas Andrew Newkirk, Newkirk Law Firm PLC, Des Moines, IA, for Plaintiff.

Adrianne C. Mazura, Dla Piper, Rudnick, Gray & Cary, US, LLP, Tracy L. Bradford, Chicago, IL, Rebecca Boyd Dublinske, Dickinson Mackaman Tyler & Hagen PC, Des Moines, IA, for Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER REGARDING DEFENDANTS' MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

MARK W. BENNETT, District Judge.

TABLE OF CONTENTS
                I. INTRODUCTION AND BACKGROUND ......................................... 951
                     A. Factual Background ............................................... 951
                     B. Procedural Background ............................................ 958
                  II. LEGAL ANALYSIS ..................................................... 958
                     A. Summary Judgment Standards ....................................... 958
                     B. Federal and Iowa law claims ...................................... 961
                
                C. Plaintiffs' Claims .................................................. 962
                        1. The circumstantial evidence paradigm .......................... 962
                        2. Prima facie case of age discrimination .......................... 964
                        3. Analysis—plaintiffs' showing of pretest ................... 965
                           a. Violation of policy by younger workers ...................... 966
                           b. Enforcement of post-April 19th violations ................... 967
                           c. Hood's comments ............................................. 968
                     D. Constitutionality Of Summary Judgment .............................. 969
                III. CONCLUSION ............................................................ 970
                

This case arises from defendant USCC Payroll Corporation's ("USCC") termination of plaintiffs' employment based on what USCC asserts was a violation of a company rule. USCC contends that plaintiffs were fired for violating a rule prohibiting employees from working on the accounts of friends and family. Plaintiffs allege that the real reason behind their dismissals was their ages, and that USCC's explanation is a mere pretext.

I. INTRODUCTION AND BACKGROUND
A. Factual Background

The summary judgment record reveals that the following facts are undisputed. USCC is in the business of selling cellular telephones and cellular telephone services. Plaintiffs Teresa Roberts, Colleen Sanders and Deana Schliske (collectively, "Plaintiffs") worked for USCC as Retail Wireless Consultants ("RWC") throughout their employment. Roberts was hired in February 1999, Sanders in October 2000, and Schliske in February 2003. In 2005, plaintiffs all worked in USCC's Fort Dodge store. In addition to plaintiffs, in September 2005, Debbie Garrett, Jackie Knierem, Roni McColley, Tiffany Sorenson and Julie Zehr were all RWCs at USCC's Fort Dodge store. As RWCs, plaintiffs were responsible for providing general customer service, including selling cellular telephones and USCC cellular telephone services, answering questions and billing inquiries and accepting payments. Plaintiffs were also responsible for completing accurate paperwork and transactions according to company policies and procedures.

Commencing in May 2005, plaintiffs reported directly to Stephanie Hood, who was the sales manager at the Fort Dodge store. Hood reported to Bonnie Hruska, the store manager. RWCs could go to Hruska for clarification of company policies. Hruska was able to observe the interaction between associates and their customers, and could also overhear their conversations.

In addition to the Fort Dodge store, Hruska was the store manager for USCC's Mason City store. As a result, Hruska was only in the Fort Dodge store one to two days per week, for approximately seven hours each day. Hood interacted with Hruska on a daily basis via telephone, email, or in person. Hruska, in turn, reported to Jody Duke, area sales manager. Duke became the area sales manager on June 1, 2005. She supervised ten to twelve locations, including the Fort Dodge store. Five or six store managers reported to Duke. Duke was not involved in the training of front line sales associates. Approximately 100 employees were in Duke's chain of command in 2005.

The day-to-day assessment of a sales associate, such as their sales numbers and progressive discipline before final warning, was part of the store manager's responsibilities. The sales manager and store manager had more personal, detailed knowledge regarding the performance of sales associates in their store than Duke.

As the area sales manager, Duke, along with human resources, would make the final decision as to whether an associate in her region would be terminated. Christine Verstegen, associate relations manager, provided human resources support in Iowa, including at the Fort Dodge store.

Duke's office was located in Urbandale, Iowa. As such, plaintiffs had very few and, in some cases, no interactions with Duke prior to their terminations. Verstegen's office was located in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Verstegen visited the Fort Dodge store twice in 2005 and met each of the plaintiffs.

As RWCs, plaintiffs were required to comply with USCC's policies and procedures. Plaintiffs understood that they could be disciplined or terminated for not complying with USCC's policies and procedures. In June 2002, plaintiffs received an updated copy of USCC's Associate Handbook and acknowledged that they read and understood the policies. USCC's Associate Handbook contains an intranet policy informing associates that "U.S. Cellular's intranet site provides associates with important company information, such as policies and procedures, associates benefit information and commonly used forms, at the click of a mouse." Associate Handbook at 35, Defendants' App. at 206. USCC's Associate Handbook also informs associates that Dynamically Speaking "is a weekly, online company newsletter available to all U.S. Cellular associates. Dynamically Speaking is available on the USCC's Intranet site and provides company and industry related news and information." Associate Handbook at 35, Defendants' App. at 206. Plaintiffs were aware that the policies and procedures that applied to their employment with USCC were available on the company's intranet site. On occasion it was not possible to access the company's intranet site. Sanders never reviewed policies online and was unaware of how to do so. She never attempted to access the company's policies on-line and never asked anyone how to do it.

USCC's Associate Handbook also references USCC's Associate Phone Program Policies, which are available on-line to all associates. All three plaintiffs took advantage of the Associate Phone Program during their employment with USCC. The Associate Phone Program Policies contain a specific Friend and Family policy, which states that "associates are not authorized to access, view or make changes to accounts belonging to friends and family and are also subject to disciplinary action up to and including termination if discovered." Associate Phone Program Policies at 8, Defendants' App. at 231. The Friends and Family policy has been in place at USCC since at least 1995. The Associate Phone Policy does not define either the term "friend" or "family."

On November 8, 2000, Sanders signed an interoffice memorandum that referenced the Associate Phone Program Policies, known as HR policy 401-4. The interoffice memorandum stated:

Just a reminder for the demo/personal employee accounts.

Employees of U.S. Cellular are not allowed to make changes to their personal and/or demo accounts. Changes include but are not limited to SN changes, price plans, features and any other actions that would require using CARES.

The designated plan administrator for the market, myself, must do all changes on demo accounts. Another employee must process payments when made on demo accounts.

The employee cannot change personal accounts themselves as well, along with the same policy as demo accounts.

Changes made to personal and/or demo accounts by the employee will result in disciplinary action or termination per the code of conduct handbook guidelines. These are found in the HR handbook policy 401-4(a) and page 62 of the employee handbook.

Interoffice Mem. at 1, Defendants' App. at 281. Roberts has no reason to believe that she did not receive this same interoffice memorandum.

Schliske received a copy of the Friends and Family policy, as of February 2003. Schliske and the other plaintiffs, however, do not recall receiving a hard copy of the Associate Phone Program Policies prior to September 2005. The Friends and Family policy was discussed in the April 19, 2005, edition of "Dynamically Speaking", USCC's newsletter. This edition of Dynamically Speaking was e-mailed to each of the plaintiffs. The Fort Dodge store had monthly employee meetings. The Friends and Family policy was never discussed at any monthly employee meeting. Renita Shanahan, the prior manager of the Fort Dodge store, told associates that they could work on an account as long as the person was not a family member who lived with you.

In reference to different preferences among the employees regarding the temperature for the store, Sanders heard Hood say, "We shouldn't have to suffer for the old ones in here." Sorenson also overheard Hood's comment but thought Hood stated, "Just because you older ladies are hot, don't [sic] mean that us younger people have to suffer." Sanders later told Schliske about Hood's comment. On another occasion, when Hood was sitting at Sanders' desk, Sanders heard Hood comment that the Fort Dodge store's full-time staff was made up entirely of women and then state, "We need a young black man in here." Julie Zehr, another RWC in the Fort Dodge store, told Roberts about Hood's comment. On another occasion, Sanders...

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