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Messenheimer v. Coastal Pet Products, Inc.

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

July 27, 2018

CAROL MESSENHEIMER, Plaintiff,
v.
COASTAL PET PRODUCTS, INC., Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Kathleen B. Burke United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Carol Messenheimer (“Messenheimer”) brings this action under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), 42 U.S.C. § 12101, et seq., and Ohio law, O.R.C. § 4112.02, against her employer, Coastal Pet Products, Inc. (“Coastal”). She alleges that Coastal discriminated against her on the basis of disability, limitations associated with Meniere's disease, by demoting her and by failing to accommodate her disability. She also claims that Coastal retaliated against her for engaging in a protected activity in violation of the ADA.

         Coastal has filed a Motion for Summary Judgment on all of Messenheimer's claims pursuant to Federal Rule Civil Procedure 56 (“the Motion”). Doc. 26. Messenheimer has filed an Opposition brief, Doc. 41, and Coastal has filed a Reply, Doc. 43. As set forth below, Coastal has shown that it demoted Messenheimer due to her documented poor managerial record; it has also shown that she never requested an accommodation and that it had no notice that she had a hearing problem resulting from her Meniere's disease. Messenheimer has failed to provide evidence to the contrary or to show that Coastal's reason for demoting her was pretextual.

         Accordingly, there is no genuine issue of material fact and Coastal is entitled to summary judgment.

         I. Background Facts

         Coastal Pet Products, Inc., manufactures and distributes “pet restraint products, including leashes, collars and related pet accessories.” Doc. 27, p. 6 (Def.'s Memo. in Support of MSJ). Coastal hired Messenheimer in 1980 as a factory worker, also known as an associate. Doc. 1, p. 2, ¶7 (Complaint); Doc. 34-3, p. 1 (Aug. 2012 Performance Evaluation). In 2005, Messenheimer was promoted to the position of supervisor in Coastal's Distribution Department where she supervised a team of associates and shift-leaders, also referred to as Work Force Coordinators (“WFC”s). Doc. 34, p. 1, ¶ 3; Doc. 34-4, p. 1. In 2014, she was demoted to associate. Doc. 34-4, p. 1 (Feb. 2013 Annual Review); Doc. 36-1, p. 1 (Sept. 2014 Employee Warning Report).

         A. Messenheimer is diagnosed with Meniere's disease in 2008-2009.

         Sometime in 2008-2009, Messenheimer was diagnosed with Meniere's disease, “a disorder of the inner ear which . . . causes symptoms of vertigo and fluctuating hearing loss to permanent hearing loss.” Doc. 1, p. 2, ¶9; Doc. 38, pp. 41-42 (Messenheimer Dep.). Messenheimer takes medication that allows her to manage her symptoms and, due to “severe hearing loss, ” she has used hearing aids since June 2014. Doc. 38, pp. 44, 50, 55. Even with her hearing aids, she reports having some difficulty hearing in noisy environments. Doc. 38, p. 55. At the time she was diagnosed, Messenheimer did not inform Coastal that she had Meniere's disease.

         B. Messenhimer receives warnings from Reese and Gordon about her performance while supervising in Area C.

         When Messenheimer first became a supervisor in 2005, she was assigned to Area C in Coastal's Distribution Department and was overseeing two WFCs and approximately 12 associates. Doc. 34, p. 1, ¶ 3 (McGavern Aff.). Her main responsibilities were to (1) maintain safety standards, (2) train her associates and WFCs, (3) ensure quality control, (4) facilitate communication between associates, management, and workers on different shifts, (5) coach and lead her associates and WFCs using positive reinforcement, and (6) provide biannual employee assessments. Doc. 33-4, pp. 1-2.

         Messenheimer's performance evaluations indicate that she exceeded expectations in the areas of safety, quality control, and training; however, beginning in 2009, she was repeatedly warned by her manager, Jason Reese, that she needed to improve her communications with fellow supervisors and her ability to instruct those whom she supervised in a calm and composed manner. Doc. 35, p. 1, ¶ 2 (Gordon Aff.). Specifically, Messenheimer received warnings regarding her managerial style at least four times between November 2009 and July 2011. Doc. 35, p. 1, ¶ 2. In her deposition, Messenheimer initially denied that she received warnings regarding her managerial style prior to 2011; however, later in her deposition, she confirmed that Reese met with her and discussed her demeanor as early as 2009. Doc. 38, pp. 81, 96.

         On July 15, 2011, Reese brought Messenheimer's managerial issues to the attention of Eric Gordon (“Gordon”), Coastal's Company Distribution Manager. Doc. 35, p. 1, ¶ 2. As Distribution Manager, Gordon is the person who “oversees all functions of distribution” and who would “make a decision whether to demote” a Distribution Department employee. Doc. 40, pp. 8, 11 (Smith Dep.). Reese and Gordon met with Messenheimer to discuss her demeanor and the manner in which she directed her associates. Doc. 35-1, p. 1. The minutes from the meeting were laid out in a Communication/Counseling Report:

It was brought to our attention by an[] associate that we were having issues with Carol and the demeanor she was using to instruct associates in their daily job functions. She was also not being consistent in the instruction that was being given. This was the 4th such complaint since November of 2009. Carol needs to address associates in a calmer demeanor and give clearer, calmer direction. Associates should know what to expect. Carol needs to be more constructive when addressing errors/reprimands and address them outside of the group.

Doc. 35-1, p. 1.

         The Communication/Counseling Report also reflects that “Carol expressed that she was unhappy and had been for a while. Carol was asked if she wanted a change or if she wanted to step down. . . . [S]he did not know.” Doc. 35-1, p. 1. Messenheimer disagreed with the problems raised in the Report and told them “there was [sic] two sides to every story and that they were listening to what the others were saying . . . .” Doc. 38, p. 78. Even so, she made an effort to start using phrases like “please” and “thank you” and “good job.” Doc. 38, p. 78.

         C. Messenheimer receives an Employee Warning Report from McGavern and Gordon for her performance in Area C and is transferred to another department.

         On April 2, 2012, Shawn McGavern replaced Reese as Messenheimer's manager in Area C. Doc. 34, p. 1, ¶¶ 1-2. McGavern witnessed Messenheimer act “rudely and negatively toward associates and WFCs in her area” and five WFCs stepped down or transferred to other areas, due, at least in part, to Messenheimer's demeanor toward them. Doc. 34, p. 1, ¶ 7. Messenheimer agrees that the WFCs left her area “because of problems they had with [her].” Doc. 38, p. 98.

         In August 2012 and February 2013, McGavern brought up these issues in Messenheimer's mid-year and annual reviews. Doc. 34-3, p. 1 (Aug. 2012 Performance Evaluation); Doc 34-4, pp. 1-3 (Feb. 2013 Performance Evaluation). McGavern also held weekly meetings throughout January and February of 2013 with Messenheimer, her WFCs, and her associates “where he attempted to remedy the problems that were raised.” Doc. 34, p. 1, ¶ 8. In her deposition, Messenheimer reported that she believed that the employees who complained about her “had it out for [her], ” and she did not take any sort of remedial action because she “didn't feel [she] was doing anything wrong.” Doc. 38, pp. 93-94.

         In July of 2013, McGavern brought Messenheimer's continuing performance issues to Gordon's attention. Doc. 35, p. 1, ¶ 4. Together, they issued an Employee Warning Report and met with Messenheimer on July 29, 2013, to discuss her ongoing managerial issues. Doc. 35, p. 1, ¶ 6. Gordon told Messenheimer that he was transferring her to a different supervisory position in a different department, Coastal's Labeling Department. He explained that “there were issues in her current department and her managers wanted to give her a clean slate to be able to be successful as a supervisor at Coastal Pet.” Doc. 40, p. 6. Her new position would also require her to supervise fewer employees. Doc. 36, p. 1, ¶¶ 1-2 (Perkins Aff.). Gordon told her that she would have “90 days to make the needed changes” or she would be “removed from the Supervisor's position.” Doc. 34-5, p. 1. During the meeting, Messenheimer denied any problems with her managerial style and conveyed that she believed the associates who had complained about her were not being truthful. Doc. 35, p. 1, ¶ 6. However, she agreed that it was a good decision to give her a clean slate with new associates. Doc. 38, p. 103.

         Messenheimer still did not inform McGavern or Gordon that she has Meniere's disease and any related limitations.

         D. Messenheimer receives more complaints about her performance in the Labeling Department and is demoted.

         Upon her transfer to the Labeling Department in July 2013, Messenheimer worked under the management of Barbara Perkins and supervised one WFC and five associates. Doc. 36, p. 1, ¶¶ 1-2. Messenheimer alleges that, during her orientation, Perkins commented, “I hope you don't have any problems going up and down ladders because the previous supervisor, that's what she would have to do.” Doc. 38, p. 106. Perkins testified in her deposition that her comment was something she would typically say to people joining the department because it was part of the job function in the Labeling Department. Doc. 39, p. 5. Messenheimer confirmed that Labeling Department employees regularly had to climb a ten-foot ladder to unjam a conveyor. Doc. 38, p. 106. Though Messenheimer had concerns about climbing ladders due to her vertigo, she did not ask for an accommodation or respond at all to Perkins' comment. Doc. 38, p. 106. Perkins stated that, at that time, she “had a general understanding that [Messenheimer] suffered from bouts of vertigo” but did not know that she had any hearing problems. Doc. 36, p. 1, ¶8.

         Messenheimer initially performed well in her new position[1]; however, a year later, around September 2014[2], Perkins began to receive complaints regarding Messenheimer's demeanor from one of the associates Messenheimer supervised, Tabitha Early. Doc. 36, p. 1, ¶¶ 2-3. Early reported that Messenheimer was rude to associates and would “walk away a lot” when associates were trying to ask her questions. Doc. 39, pp. 5-7 (Perkins Dep.). Perkins investigated the complaint by interviewing other individuals who worked with Messenheimer and she received several other reports confirming Messenheimer's treatment of associates.[3] Doc. 39, p. 8.

         Perkins did not notify Messenheimer of these complaints. Doc 39, p. 8. Instead, on September 17, 2014, Perkins brought the complaints to the attention of Eric Gordon. Doc. 36, p. 1, ¶ 4 (Perkins Aff.). Perkins advised Gordon that Messenheimer “had failed to demonstrate the ability to consistently present a friendly and professional image as it pertained to associates and WFCs who worked under her supervision.” Doc. 36, p. 1, ¶ 4. Gordon and Perkins decided to demote Messenheimer to an associate position and transfer her to a different work area due to her record of demeanor-related issues with WFCs and associates dating back to 2009. Doc. 36, p. 1, ¶ 5.

         On September 18, 2014, while at work, Messenheimer had an episode of Meniere's disease. Doc. 38, p. 121. She experienced vomiting, vertigo, and dizziness. Doc. 38, p. 43. Perkins called an ambulance and Messenheimer was taken to the hospital. Doc. 38, p. 121. Messenheimer was out of work for eleven days on medical leave. Doc. 38, p. 52. She returned from medical leave on September 29, 2014, at which time Gordon and Perkins met with her to notify her of their decision to demote her. Doc. 36, p. 1, ¶ 6. In the meeting, Gordon and Perkins explained that they had received complaints that Messenheimer had been rude to her associates and had refused to help them when they came to her for assistance. Doc. 36-1, p. 1. They presented Messenheimer with an Employee Warning Report, outlining their decision and its basis. Doc. 36, p. 1, ¶7; Doc. 36-1, p. 1. At no point in the meeting did Messenheimer tell them she had hearing problems.

         E. Messenheimer has two meetings with Coastal's Human Resource Department.

         1. First Meeting

         Following her demotion, Messenheimer submitted a letter to Coastal's Human Resource Department (“HR”) requesting that they undertake an investigation into her demotion. Doc. 40, p. 10. She alleged that age and disability discrimination were the basis of her demotion.[4] Doc. 40, p. 10. HR Director Merrie Smith (“Smith”) investigated and found a note in Messenheimer's HR file written on a prescription pad from Messenheimer's doctor, stating, “P[atien]t has Meniere's Disease with intermittent vertigo. There may be times when she cannot climb a ladder.” Doc. 41-7, p. 1 (Doctor's Note). Smith stated in her deposition that the note was never given to her directly, and she only checked Messenheimer's file when she was asked to investigate. Doc. 40, p. 7. The note is dated August 8, 2013, but there is no evidence regarding when or how the note was added to her file.

         On November 7, 2014, Smith and Joe Tucker, Vice President of HR, met with Messenheimer to discuss her allegations in more detail. Doc. 40, p. 10. Messenheimer explained that she felt that she was discriminated against because of her recent leave of absence. Doc. 40, p. 10. In her deposition, she recalled that Smith and Tucker treated her well during the meeting. Doc. 38, p. 130. She did not recall whether she told them during that meeting that she had hearing problems as a result of her Meniere's disease. Doc. 38, pp. 128-129, 131-132.

         2. Second Meeting

         Sometime after November 7, 2014, Messenheimer requested a second meeting with the HR department so that she could explain that she has Meniere's disease and related vertigo and hearing problems. Doc. 38, pp. 131-33. Smith said that she did not know Messenheimer used hearing aids. Doc. 40, p. 7. The new information did not change Coastal's position regarding Messenheimer's demotion. Doc. 40, pp. 10-11.

         Thereafter, Messenheimer filed a charge against Coastal with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) alleging discrimination based on retaliation, age, and disability. The EEOC issued a right-to-sue letter on January 12, 2017, and Messenheimer filed her ...


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