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Mendiola v. Exide Technologies

United States District Court, D. Kansas

October 31, 2018

EXIDE TECHNOLOGIES, et al., Defendants.



         This case comes before the court on Defendants' motion for summary judgment. (Doc. 37.) The motions have been fully briefed and are ripe for decision. (Docs. 38, 42, 43.) Defendants' motion is GRANTED for the reasons stated herein.

         I. Facts [1]

         Defendant Exide Technologies (“Exide”) manufactures, sells, and recycles batteries that are used for transportation and industrial purposes. Exide has a manufacturing facility in Salina, Kansas. Plaintiff Isidro Mendiola began working for Exide's predecessor company in 1979. Plaintiff was employed by Exide and its predecessor until he was terminated effective June 15, 2016. Plaintiff worked as an operator in the formation department during his employment. As an operator, Plaintiff had several functions, including adding water and acid to batteries. There are three different manufacturing lines at the Exide facility in Salina: main line; commercial line (“comline”); and OMI line. (Doc. 38 at 2-3.)

         From 2006 to 2015, Shawn Hogan was a formation supervisor at Exide and served as Plaintiff's supervisor. During that time, Plaintiff worked on the main line and the comline. Plaintiff also worked on the OMI line after it was installed around 2013 or 2014. There were times that Plaintiff caused damage to the OMI line conveyor chain during his employment. (Doc. 38 at 3, 5.)

         While employed at Exide, Plaintiff usually received annual evaluations. The evaluations were generally satisfactory. (Doc. 42, Exh. 5.) The reviews did contain comments indicating areas for improvement. In 2004, Plaintiff's evaluation stated that he needed “to keep the line full at all times. Needs to do change overs as fast as possible.” (Doc. 42, Exh. 5 at 16.) In 2009, his evaluation stated that he “does a good job on the input filer [sic] needs to watch the quality of batteries he puts on the line and watch his bathroom trips.” (Id. at 20.) In 2011, his evaluation comments stated that he “is always watching quality. Needs to watch his bathroom breaks and work harder on keeping the line full.” (Id. at 30.) In 2013, the comments stated that he “needs to listen and follow instructions … he has trouble with someone telling him how to do things. Needs to get faster at change-overs, and work better with his co-workers.” (Id. at 31.) In 2014, the comments to his annual evaluation stated that he “does a good job on the input filler, needs to work on keeping the line full. Needs to always look at the quality of the product….” (Id. at 32.) In August 2015, he received a 2 rating, which means “partially meets performance expectations, ” for the categories quality of work and quantity of work. (Id. at 33.) The comments on his evaluation stated that he “needs to improve on quality. Floods, acid levels, SPC data entry. Need to learn the comline and take advice from co-workers.” (Id.) Although his evaluations contained comments regarding his need for improvement in some areas, Plaintiff did not receive a written warning during the years 2008 to 2015. (Doc. 42 at 9, Exh. 3.)

         Randy Bates was a lead in the formation department and formally became the supervisor in December 2015. At the time Bates was a lead, he received complaints from Plaintiff's co- workers regarding Plaintiff's performance. Plaintiff was not aware that his co-workers made these complaints. Bates coached Plaintiff on multiple occasions regarding his performance although Bates could not recall specific dates. Prior to December 2015, Bates moved Plaintiff around to different positions to help on other lines that needed assistance.[2] (Docs. 38 at 4; 42 at 3-4.)

         On December 6, 2015, Plaintiff was hospitalized for surgery on his big toe. Plaintiff was in the hospital for ten days. Plaintiff submitted Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) paperwork for his serious health condition. Exide approved Plaintiff's leave effective November 25, 2015. According to Exide's records, Plaintiff's first day out on FMLA leave was December 6. Exide's employee handbook has a return to work policy. The policy states that employees are required to bring a return to work slip after an absence for an illness of three days or more. Pursuant to the policy, Exide may require the company physician to be consulted. (Doc. 37-2 at 39.) On March 1, 2016, Plaintiff's doctor released Plaintiff to work half-days starting March 6. Plaintiff's doctor then released Plaintiff to work full time on March 7. Plaintiff did not return to Exide on March 6 or 7 as Exide required consultation with the company physician. Exide scheduled an appointment with its physician for March 9. Plaintiff was cleared to work by Exide's physician and his first day back was March 13. (Docs. 38 at 6-7; 42 at 5, 7-8; 43 at 3.)

         When he returned to work, Plaintiff was placed in the same position, as a formation operator. Plaintiff had the same pay and supervisor. Bates testified that he moved Plaintiff to different lines on his return because Plaintiff's performance was below Exide's expectations. Bates set Plaintiff up with a trainer and tried Plaintiff on the OMI and comlines. Bates also offered to get anything that Plaintiff needed and asked him repeatedly if there was something that he could do to help. Bates testified that Plaintiff's co-workers were frustrated by Plaintiff's performance and inadequate pace although there is no documentation regarding specific co-worker complaints. (Docs. 38 at 8-9; 42 at 4-5.)

         Exide's productions standards increased over the time period that Plaintiff was employed. The formation department got leaner and it was determined that Exide could not have extra employees in that department. On April 18, Bates verbally counseled Plaintiff for unsatisfactory job performance. Plaintiff had failed on the main line and comline. Bates told Plaintiff that if he didn't meet the safety, quality and production standards on the OMI line that disciplinary action would be taken.[3] (Docs. 37-3 at 54 (Bates Email dated April 18, 2016); 38 at 10; 42 at 6.) Hogan met with Plaintiff to discuss a potential job opportunity in the distribution center but Plaintiff rejected the suggestion. Distribution center jobs are less demanding than the jobs in formation. Hogan did not tell Plaintiff that he would be terminated if he didn't transfer to the distribution center. (Doc. 38 at 9-11; 42 at 5-6, 9.)

         On or about May 17, 2016, Plaintiff was issued a “last chance” warning. The warning states that he had received a verbal warning for performance on April 18 and that he had not been able to meet production and quality standards. The warning states that immediate improvement is required to avoid termination. (Doc. 37-2 at 86.) Although Plaintiff testified that he was not told it was a final warning and did not understand that his job was in jeopardy, Plaintiff's signature is on the document. (Id.; Plaintiff's Dep. 55:01-59:01, Doc. 37-2.)

         During the week of May 30, 2016, Plaintiff was placed on the comline after he failed to meet production standards on the OMI line. Plaintiff then had several performance issues over a four-day period that caused down time on the line and quality issues with several batteries.[4] (Doc. 37-2 at 87.) Plaintiff states that this fact is controverted “to the extent that Mendiola was unable to, or did not, adequately perform his job duties.” (Doc. 42 at 6.) Plaintiff cites to his deposition at pages 55-56, 58 and 61. That deposition testimony at pages 55 and 56 discusses the last chance warning of May 17 and the fact that Plaintiff was moved between lines. Page 58 of Plaintiff's deposition discusses whether Plaintiff was ever told that his job was in jeopardy. On page 61, Plaintiff admits to causing damages to batteries. (Plaintiff's Dep. 61:13-20, Doc. 37-2.) Therefore, Plaintiff has not controverted the fact that he failed to meet production standards on the OMI line and that he was responsible for down time on the line during the week of May 30, 2016.

         On June 7, 2016, a meeting was held with Plaintiff, Bates and Gary Strodtman, Exide's human resources manager. During the meeting, Plaintiff was terminated. (Docs. 38 at 12; 42 at 6-7.) Plaintiff was informed that he was terminated because he “didn't produce.” (Plaintiff's Dep. 60:15-18, Doc. 37-2.) Plaintiff does not know who, if anyone, replaced him at Exide after his termination.

         At some point after his termination, Plaintiff applied for disability compensation benefits. A Social Security Administration examiner found Plaintiff to be disabled and approved his application. The onset date of Plaintiff's disability was June 7, 2016. Plaintiff receives over $2, 000 per month in benefits. Plaintiff testified that he was physically unable to work as of June 7, 2016, as stated in his application for disability benefits, and that he did not want to go back to work at Exide. (Plaintiff's Dep. 82:03-22, Doc. 37-2.)

         Plaintiff filed this action against Exide and Bates alleging claims under the FMLA and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”). Defendants now move for summary judgment on all claims.

         II. Summary Judgment Standards

         Summary judgment is appropriate if the moving party demonstrates that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact, and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A fact is “material” when it is essential to the claim, and the issues of fact are “genuine” if the proffered evidence permits a reasonable jury to decide the issue in either party's favor. Haynes v. Level 3 Commc'ns, 456 F.3d 1215, 1219 (10th Cir. 2006). The movant bears the initial burden of proof and must show the lack of evidence on an essential element of the claim. Thom v. Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., 353 F.3d 848, 851 (10th Cir. 2004) (citing Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23, 106 S.Ct. 2548 (1986)). The nonmovant must then bring forth specific facts showing a genuine issue for trial. Garrison v. Gambro, Inc., 428 F.3d 933, 935 (10th Cir. 2005). The court views all evidence and reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. LifeWise Master Funding v. Telebank, 374 F.3d 917, 927 (10th Cir. 2004).

         III. Analysis

         A. ...

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