Weldon v. Kraft, Inc.

Decision Date22 February 1990
Docket NumberNo. 89-1519,89-1519
Citation896 F.2d 793
Parties52 Fair Empl.Prac.Cas. 355, 29 Wage & Hour Cas. (BN 1158, 52 Empl. Prac. Dec. P 39,689 Abraham WELDON, Appellant, v. KRAFT, INC.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Third Circuit

Richard J. Orloski (Argued), Orloski & Hinga, Allentown, Pa., for appellant.

William F. Kershner (Argued), Pepper, Hamilton & Scheetz, Berwyn, Pa., for appellee.

Before HIGGINBOTHAM, Chief Judge * SCIRICA, Circuit Judge, and POLITAN, District Judge **


SCIRICA, Circuit Judge.

This is an appeal from a grant of summary judgment in favor of defendant, Kraft, Inc. ("Kraft"). Plaintiff Abraham Weldon brought suit in district court against Kraft, his former employer, claiming that Kraft terminated his employment in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. Sec. 2000e et seq. (1982) ("Title VII"), as well as 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1981 (1982) ("Sec. 1981"). 1 Moreover, Weldon alleged violations of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act ("ERISA") and Pennsylvania's Wage Payment and Collection Law ("WPCL"). We will affirm the dismissal of the ERISA and WPCL claims but because we find that the evidence creates a genuine issue of material fact as to whether Kraft intentionally discriminated against Weldon, we will reverse the dismissal of Weldon's discrimination claims.


Weldon, a black male, was employed as an assistant supervisor in Kraft's Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania plant from June 1986 until he was fired, effective April 14, 1987. Kraft claims that it terminated Weldon because: 1) his job performance was unsatisfactory; 2) he failed to produce adequate medical documentation for a month-long absence; and 3) he failed to follow company policy requiring the return of unused advance money within seven days of the completion of a business trip. Weldon contends that the asserted reasons are pretextual and that his termination was racially motivated. The depositions and documents included in the record set forth the following information.

Kraft recruited Weldon through an employment agency specializing in minority applicants. Prior to his hiring, Weldon visited the plant and was interviewed by several Kraft managers and supervisors. It was standard practice at Kraft to check references and contact the applicant's former employers. Satisfied that Weldon was the best candidate of those interviewed, Kraft hired him on June 30, 1986.

From June 1986 through February 1987, Weldon was assigned to the first shift in the salads department under John Gier, an experienced supervisor with a reputation as one of Kraft's most demanding trainers. In a December 1986 written evaluation, Gier rated Weldon's performance as "below expectations." The report indicated that Weldon had failed to meet a number of his performance objectives and that productivity had decreased in the department by ten percent. According to Gier,

Apparent lack of sense of priorities deters performance enhancement. Desire to increase knowledge of company policies and procedures seems questionable. Manager needs to affirm a concerted effort (presently insufficient) to broaden the overall skills and knowledge required to be a good Kraft manager. Improvement in employee relations remains a priority

In addition, Gier reportedly wrote a letter to his direct supervisor, in which he stated that Weldon lacked the intelligence necessary for the position. Later, as part of his deposition testimony, however, Gier stated that Weldon was both intelligent and capable but lacked motivation.

Weldon contends that Gier treated blacks unfairly. He claims that Don Griffin, a black trainee under Gier, was forced to seek the help of another supervisor to learn the technical aspects of the job, and that another black trainee transferred out of Gier's department to avoid losing his job. Weldon also claims that several black coworkers reported to him their personal experiences or the experiences of other blacks who had received poor evaluations from Gier or who had personal confrontations with him. According to Weldon, Richard Cliffe, a personnel manager, admitted that Gier had difficulty working with minority employees. In addition, Weldon claims that white coworkers warned him that Gier would disapprove if Weldon became too friendly with them. He concluded, however, that Gier's disapproval was unrelated to the fact that Weldon was black. Finally, Weldon claims that Cliffe had promised to assign him to Carlos Delgado, whom Weldon alleges is a "minority trainer."

Gier confirmed that several black trainees under his supervision had experienced difficulties mastering job skills but contends that there was no personal animosity between himself and his trainees. Gier claims to have been instrumental in the promotion of the black trainee who allegedly transferred to save his job.

Richard Cliffe denies telling Weldon that Gier had problems with minority employees. He claims to have been present when Don Griffin and Weldon discussed their problems working with Gier. Cliffe states that Griffin indicated that his difficulties were job-related and that he considered Gier to be an extremely demanding trainer. According to Cliffe, Griffin did not represent that Gier had any particular difficulty with black trainees. The record contains no deposition of Griffin and the parties cite to none. Finally, Cliffe states that he never promised to assign Weldon to Delgado and that Kraft has not designated any supervisor as a "minority trainer."

In February 1987, Cliffe arranged to have Weldon transferred to the third shift in the portion control department under the supervision of Ellen Williams. According to Cliffe, the transfer was arranged to "give [Weldon] a fresh start under another supervisor" and to ensure that Weldon's performance problems were not related to the conflict with Gier.

Williams claims that she was not satisfied with Weldon's performance. She contends that Weldon had difficulty mastering and completing the various reports for which he was responsible, that he lacked initiative, and that he avoided active involvement in the day-to-day operations of the department. According to Williams, because of these perceived deficiencies, she and Jerry Serfass, the third shift superintendent, developed an "action plan" for Weldon that indicated areas for development and listed reports that Weldon should complete on a regular basis. Serfass claims to have met with Weldon on several occasions to discuss the plan, but contends that Weldon never forwarded any of the requested reports. Williams also claims to have met with Weldon numerous times to explain the plan and to monitor his progress. She contends that she never observed Weldon working on the reports.

Weldon notes that he was the first trainee to be placed under William's supervision and that Williams had very little contact with blacks prior to the assignment. Moreover, Weldon challenges William's claim that she worked with him on improving the areas identified in the "action plan." The plan was contained in a memo from Serfass dated March 23, 1987. Williams testified at her deposition that she met and worked with Weldon after she received the memo. However, Weldon did not return to work on a regular basis after March 19, 1987.

As part of his training, Weldon was scheduled to attend a week-long seminar conducted by Kraft beginning on Sunday, March 23, 1987, in Chicago, Illinois. The company had provided Weldon with airplane tickets and a $1000 cash advance to cover expenses. Weldon asked to be excused from work on the preceding Friday to prepare for the trip. Williams denied the request, claiming she needed his assistance in performing the sanitation tasks generally conducted on Friday nights.

Nonetheless, on Friday, March 20, Weldon called Williams to inform her that he could not work that day because he was ill. Weldon never attended the seminar and did not return to work until April 13, 1987. During his absence, Weldon spoke with Williams several times by telephone. They discussed making arrangements for the return of the cash advance and the airplane tickets. Moreover, Cliffe claims that Weldon received specific instructions to present medical documentation covering the duration of his absence upon his return.

Weldon returned to work on April 13 and, after his shift ended at 7:30 A.M. on April 14, he met with Serfass and Charles Harlin, the general superintendent. Weldon submitted a doctor's certificate covering three days of absence and the plane ticket. Although he did not return the $1000 advance as requested, he presented a $110 traveler's check and offered to sign over his last paycheck for $890, which had been withheld pending Weldon's return of the cash advance. 2 Harlin refused to accept the traveler's check, insisting that Weldon return the entire amount of the cash advance. He reminded Weldon of previous instances where Weldon had reimbursed cash advances with personal checks that were returned for insufficient funds. Moreover, he stated that he was disappointed with Weldon's job performance. At the conclusion of the meeting, Harlin suspended Weldon until further notice.

On April 16, Weldon again met with Serfass. He presented a doctor's certificate covering the period from March 20 to March 27. He signed over his withheld paycheck and again tendered the traveler's check, which this time was accepted. Nonetheless, on May 5, Cliffe issued a termination notice to Weldon, effective April 14, 1987. The letter stated that the termination resulted from Weldon's "ongoing performance deficiencies," and "lack of cooperation in resolving the question of [his] alleged disability." Moreover, it stated: "We still await requested documentation on your alleged disability which began on March 20, 1987 so we can resolve the matter of your Short Term Disability benefits. Please be reminded that this is the fourth request for this ......

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