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Cole v. Swagelok Corp.

United States District Court, N.D. Ohio, Eastern Division

October 23, 2017

EUGENE COLE, Plaintiff,

          Thomas M. Parker United States Magistrate Judge.


         I. Introduction

         In 2014, Eugene Cole resigned from Swagelok Corporation after working at the company for 14 years. Cole became a supervisor at the company in 2007 or 2008, but by 2009 Swagelok demoted him for failing to complete a performance improvement plan related to problems with his communication skills. Cole claims that the demotion and Swagelok's refusal to interview or hire him for subsequent supervisory roles was discrimination based on his religion (Christianity), his disability (Temporomandibular Joint Disorder), and his military status (retired from the United States Marine Corps.). Because Swagelok has presented evidence of legitimate non-discriminatory reasons for the adverse employment actions taken against Cole, and Cole has not submitted any evidence that these reasons were pretextual, and because Cole has failed to show severe or pervasive conduct constituting a hostile work environment, the court GRANTS summary judgment to Swagelok on all counts.

         II. Facts

         The parties' Rule 56 evidence contains the following facts. Cole worked for Swagelok from August 2000 through August 2014 when he resigned. Eugene Cole Deposition, ECF Doc. No. 18-1 at pp. 22-23, 32. Around 2007, Cole moved to his first supervisory position with the company. Id. at 34-35. In a 2008 performance review his supervisor Ross Cosentino stated:

Eugene and I have worked to temper down some of his communications. At times he has written emails that others could have felt were negative although his intentions were not that…Eugene's body language and tone of voice sometimes leads others to perceive that he is angry or upset and he is not. We have discussed this on a couple of occasions and he is trying to adjust this.

ECF Doc. No. 18-1, Ex. C, Page ID# 251.

         In 2009, Swagelok eliminated Cole's shift, and he was transferred to an assembly supervisor position in Swagelok's Order Fulfillment Center (“OFC”). Id. at 44. In that role, he reported to Malcom Conner. Id. at 44. Conner received complaints from several employees regarding Cole's communication style. Conner Affidavit, ECF Doc. No, .17-2, Page ID# 143, ¶ 3. In his 2009 mid-year review of Cole, Conner stated:

Gene has a tell-directed leadership style and frequently speaks in a loud authoritative manner. While this style may have served him well in Highland's machining environment, which is structured and paced differently from the SSSC OFC assembly environment, Gene needs to be mindful of how he is perceived. A number of Gene's direct reports have come to me concerned with how they perceive Gene's treatment of them. Some perceive him to be angry or that he yells at them all the time. In April Gene and I discussed the opportunity for him to develop a more moderate approach when interacting with this group. Gene was open to the feedback and had concerns of his own regarding the sensitivity level his group was displaying. Gene quickly ascertained that this group was different from the group he supervised at Highland and was willing to try to make the necessary adjustments for the team's success.
Gene has worked to address these concerns that have been raised but has not demonstrated consistency in this area. I still receive unsolicited feedback that Gene has not done a good job of connecting with his associates…
Gene's overall performance needs improvement. As a result the following action plans will be implemented to help Gene improve: Performance Improvement Process… Cole Depo, Ex. G., Page ID# 276. As a result of the mid-year review, in September 2009, Conner placed Cole on a Performance Improvement Plan (“PIP”). Id. at 69; See also Conner Aff., ¶ 4.

Cole's PIP stated that he needed to “develop and demonstrate good team work and collaboration skills when it comes to his associate interactions.” ECF Doc. 18-1, Page ID# 253. The PIP required Cole to refrain from “accusatory statements and tones that may create an intimidating environment” and keeping a log for when he demonstrated empathy, and “[c]reat[ing] time to speak one on one” with his associates “about their career goals, personal interests, or things they would like to try.” Id. The PIP indicated that failure to meet any of the requirements could result in “further disciplinary action up to and including job reassignment or termination.” Id. at Page ID# 254.

         Cole stated that he understood that Conner felt he was “intimidating people…yelling on the shop floor, and…telling instead of discussing.” Cole depo. at 70. Conner had expressed to Cole several times that his feedback to Cole was based on complaints from other associates. Id. at 70-71, Conner Aff. ¶3. For example, two of Cole's employees complained to Conner about Cole's communication style during a startup meeting. Id. at 75-77. One of the employees told Conner she felt humiliated by Cole. Id. at 77. Cole apologized to the employee. Id. In June 2009, Conner received another complaint about Cole's communication. Id. at 99-100. Someone complained that Cole was “shutting people down” during a plant management team meeting. Id. at 100. During a subsequent conversation about the meeting Cole complained that he did not feel like a part of the team because if people made a complaint about him he was “guilty.” Id. at 100-101.

         Eventually Cole informed Conner and an employee in human resources (Judy Siegrist) that he finished PIP and wanted out. Id. at 81-82. Conner asked if Cole had completed all the PIP requirements. Id. at 82. Cole stated that he had, however, Conner believed that Cole had not completed the requirements. Id. The PIP required Cole speak to each of his associates one-on-one. Id. Conner interpreted this condition to require Cole to take each employee off the shop floor to talk to them. Id. Cole protested Conner's interpretation. Id. In his end of the year review (for year 2009), Cole received a needs improvement rating for self-confidence and an unsatisfactory rating for the following competencies: (1) people development and (2) empathy. ECF Doc. 18-1, Ex. G, Page ID# 272-73, 275.

         Under people development, Conner stated that Cole has “high integrity and is very well disciplined which is a strength for him. However, his direct reports have had a number of integrity and discipline concerns…Gene has not demonstrated the ability to get his associates to understand why things need to be done a certain way, and get their buy in. Associate development and effective interactions with this team has been an ongoing topic for Gene and I during his PI discussions.” Id. at 272. Under empathy, Conner stated:

…Gene has not developed a comfort level for having personal conversations particularly one on one off the floor sit-downs with his associates. As a result his associates and peers alike have difficulty relating to him. He is recognized by position (supervisor) but has not connected beyond that. This leaves his direct reports with the sense “it's all about the job or task” and not about them as people. The disconnect hinders associate development and minimizes participation. As a result, interactions between Gene, his peers and associates become tense and less involved as each party is seeking to end the interaction as quickly as possible…As a supervisor Gene has not yet consistently performed to expectations in this area.

Id. at 275.

         Two weeks after being presented with this review, in February 2010, Swagelok demoted Cole from his supervisory role. Cole depo. at 82, 107, 121, 136. Cole returned to a Tool Crib Operator - 4 position in March 2010. Id. at 48-19; Conner Aff., ¶6. In that position, Cole received positive performance reviews and salary increases for the next few years. See Cole Depo., Exs. P-S.

         Cole pursued other supervisory roles, but was not selected for these jobs.[1] He applied to be a Tool Crib Supervisor in May 16, 2013, and a Senior Production Manager in October 13, 2013. Id. at 164; ECF Doc. 17-4, Page ID# 164-67. The hiring managers for both of these positions (Christopher Gravius and Behram Ginwalla, respectively) stated that they were unaware of any complaints of harassment or discrimination by Cole. ECF Doc. 17-4, Page ID# 164, ¶5; Page ID# 166, ¶5. Mr. Gravius stated that he selected another individual (a disabled veteran) for the role and did not believe that Cole's “performance or leadership style would lend itself to a Supervisor role.” Id. at Page ID# 164, ¶3. Mr. Ginwalla stated that he hired Holly Colson the position based on his first hand observations of her performance. Id. at Page ID# 166, ΒΆ4. On August 8, 2014, Cole ...

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