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McFadden v. Stahl Crane Systems, Inc.

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Charleston Division

March 31, 2017




         This matter is before the court on Magistrate Judge Thomas E. Rogers, III's Report and Recommendation (the “R&R”), ECF No. 99, recommending that the court grant defendants Stahl Crane Systems, Inc. and Konecranes, Inc.'s (collectively, “defendants”) motion for summary judgment. ECF No. 81. Plaintiff Daniel McFadden (“McFadden”) filed objections to the R&R. ECF No. 102. For the reasons set forth below, the court adopts in part and rejects in part the R&R, and grants in part and denies in part defendants' motion for summary judgment.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Defendants own and operate an enterprise engaged in the manufacture of wire rope and chain hoists used on cranes and other heavy lifting equipment in the manufacturing industy, shipyards, ports, and terminals. ECF No. 81-1, Defs.' Mot. 2. McFadden began working for defendant Stahl Crane Systems, Inc.'s (“Stahl”) as a “Production Manager” at its Charleston, South Carolina location in 2002.[1] ECF No. 81-2, McFadden Dep. 29:22-25. As a Production Manager, McFadden performed primarily sales and supply-chain management related functions, such as “mak[ing] production schedules to meet promised deliveries, ” “mak[ing] sure [] the components necessary to complete the equipment [were] available and on hand, ” “keep[ing] current purchase agreements in place and constantly trying to get better pricing and delivery, ” improving the product “through discussions and meetings with customers, ” and participating in “sales calls” and “sales meetings.” McFadden Dep. 57:23-58:21. McFadden was also qualified to perform engineering and managerial functions. ECF No. 82-12, Heeskins Dep. 37:16-19.

         In December of 2004, McFadden was diagnosed with colon cancer. He underwent surgery and treatment while continuing to work in his position as Production Manager. Following this treatment, McFadden's cancer went into remission. In July of 2008, McFadden learned his colon cancer had returned. Faced with the prospect of again undergoing surgery and treatment, McFadden requested and was granted a leave of absence from his job with Stahl. ECF Nos. 82-6. Stahl placed McFadden on short term disability while he was on leave. McFadden Dep. 72:22-25; ECF No. 82-7, Letter re: Medical Leave of Absence. In September or October of 2008, while McFadden was still on leave, his supervisor, Robby Heeskens (“Heeskens”), offered him a newly created position as a Research and Development Engineering Manager (“R&D Manager”). McFadden Dep. 116:10-17, 118:1-15. The position required McFadden to “Americanize” defendants' products, which were developed in Germany. Heeskens Dep. 48:1-12. McFadden specifically asked Heeskens whether the position would be phased out, and expressed his desire to remain in a permanent position with the company. McFadden Dep. 117:11-118:15. Heeskens assured McFadden that the position would not be phased out, and that Stahl's managing director, Warren Wagner (“Wagner”), supported the position. Id. at 117:11-20. McFadden accepted the R&D Manager position and returned to work in that role on November 20, 2008. Id. at 126:10-24. McFadden's old Production Manager position was filled by Scott Vogel (“Vogel”), a younger employee who had been covering McFadden's duties during his leave of absence. Heeskens Dep. 38:1- 39:5. Notably, the R&D Manager position provided McFadden with the same pay and benefits he received as a Production Manager. McFadden Dep. 126:19-24.

         In 2009, due to the “worldwide economic downturn, ” Konecranes underwent significant internal restructuring. Wagner Aff. ¶ D. As part of this restructuring, Konecranes decided to eliminate all production operations at Stahl's Charleston facility, leaving only the sales office. Id. ¶ F. All of Stahl's production operations were moved to a larger facility in Springfield, Ohio and a number of positions- including the R&D Manager position-were eliminated. Id. ¶ H. Konecranes avers that “[t]he sole reason for the elimination of these positions was to reduce costs because of the worldwide economic crisis.” Id. ¶ I.

         McFadden was terminated on October 23, 2009. McFadden Dep. 129:25- 130:2. Heeskens and Wagner met with McFadden to tell him that his position was being eliminated. Id. at 130:3-7. After being informed of his termination, McFadden told Heeskens and Wagner that “[he] would take a job anywhere in the U.S., [he] didn't care where, anywhere in the world, anyplace they had a spot for [him], Dubai, [he] didn't care.” Id. at 133:2-5. Wagner responded that “[t]hey had nothing.” Id. at 133:5-6. On November 11, 2009, McFadden's attorney, Allan Holmes (“Holmes”), sent a letter to KCI's president, Tom Sothard (“Sothard”), informing Sothard that he believed McFadden had been the victim of unlawful discrimination, seeking information justifying defendants' decision to terminate McFadden's employment, and informing Sothard that McFadden “remain[ed] willing to accept a position with your company or any of its affiliates anywhere in the world.” ECF No. 81-11, Holmes Letter 2. Defendants did not respond to the Holmes Letter.

         McFadden filed a charge of discrimination with both the South Carolina Human Affairs Commission and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), and received notice of his right to sue on August 22, 2013. McFadden filed the instant action on November 7, 2013. ECF No. 1. McFadden claims that defendants have unlawfully discriminated against him based on his advanced age and his disability-cancer-in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, 29 U.S.C. § 623 (“ADEA”) and the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C §§ 126, et seq. (“ADA”), respectively. ECF No. 74, Am. Compl. ¶¶ 27, 28.[2]McFadden also alleges that he was subjected to unlawful retaliation under the ADA for his use of medical leave to treat his disability and for the Holmes Letter. Id. ¶ 28.

         Defendants filed the instant motion for summary judgment on April 29, 2016. ECF No. 81. McFadden filed a response on May 16, 2016, ECF No. 82, and defendants filed a reply on May 26, 2016. ECF No. 84. McFadden filed a sur-reply on June 2, 2016.[3] ECF No. 86. The magistrate judge issued the R&R on January 31, 2017, recommending the court grant defendants' summary judgment on all of McFadden's claims. ECF No. 99. McFadden filed objections to the R&R on February 14, 2017, ECF No. 102, and defendants filed a reply on February 28, 2017. ECF No. 103. McFadden filed a motion for leave to file a sur-reply-with a proposed sur-reply attached-on March 7, 2017. ECF No. 104. The matter is now ripe for the court's review.

         II. STANDARD

         A. De Novo Review

         This court is charged with conducting a de novo review of any portion of the magistrate judge's R&R to which specific, written objections are made. 28 U.S.C. 636(b)(1). The court may adopt the portions of the R&R to which the petitioner did not object, as a party's failure to object is accepted as agreement with the conclusions of the magistrate judge. Thomas v. Arn, 474 U.S. 140, 14-50 (1985). The recommendation of the magistrate judge carries no presumptive weight, and it is this court's responsibility to make a final determination. Mathews v. Weber, 423 U.S. 261, 270-71 (1976).

         B. Summary Judgment

         Summary judgment shall be granted “if the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). “By its very terms, this standard provides that the mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment; the requirement is that there be no genuine issue of material fact.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-48 (1986). “Only disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment.” Id. at 248. “[S]ummary judgment will not lie if the dispute about a material fact is ‘genuine, ' that is, if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Id.

         “[A]t the summary judgment stage the judge's function is not himself to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial.” Id. at 249. When the party moving for summary judgment does not bear the ultimate burden of persuasion at trial, it may discharge its burden by demonstrating to the court that there is an absence of evidence to support the non-moving party's case. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 325 (1986). The non-movant must then “make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Id. at 322. The court should view the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and draw all inferences in its favor. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255.


         A. ADEA and ADA Discrimination Claims

         McFadden argues that defendants discriminated against him based on his age and disability in violation of the ADA and ADEA when they terminated his employment and frustrated his ability to seek further employment with the company.[4]

         “The ADEA makes it unlawful for any employer: ‘to discharge any individual or otherwise discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual's age.'” McKennon v. Nashville Banner Pub. Co., 513 U.S. 352, 355 (1995) (quoting 29 U.S.C. § 623(a)(1)). Similarly, the ADA provides that “[n]o covered entity shall discriminate against a qualified individual on the basis of disability in regard to job application procedures, the hiring, advancement, or discharge of employees, employee compensation, job training, and other terms, conditions, and privileges of employment.” 42 U.S.C. § 12112(a).

         A plaintiff may prove ADEA and ADA discrimination claims in two ways: (1) through direct proof, or (2) through circumstantial evidence, using the burden-shifting framework set forth in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973). See Smith v. Strayer Univ. Corp., 79 F.Supp.3d 591, 598 (E.D. Va. 2015) (“In the employment discrimination context, including under the ADA, to avoid summary judgment in defendant's favor, a plaintiff must either produce direct or circumstantial evidence of defendant's discriminatory motivations, or proceed under the two-step “pretext” framework set forth in [McDonnell Douglas].”); Malina v. Baltimore Gas & Elec. Co., 18 F.Supp.2d 596, 604-05 (D. Md. 1998) (“The Fourth Circuit has long held that an employee may prove age discrimination in two ways: under ordinary principles of proof using direct evidence relevant to and probative of that issue; or under the McDonnell Douglas circumstantial proof paradigm used in Title VII cases.”). In this case, the parties proceed under the McDonnell Douglas framework.

         The Fourth Circuit has explained the McDonnell Douglas framework as follows:

[T]he plaintiff has the initial burden of proving a prima facie case of discrimination by a preponderance of the evidence. If the plaintiff succeeds in proving the prima facie case, the burden shifts to the defendant to articulate some legitimate, nondiscriminatory explanation which, if believed by the trier of fact, would support a finding that unlawful discrimination was not the cause of the employment action. If the defendant meets this burden of production, the presumption created by the prima facie case “drops out of ...

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