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King v. Adtran, Inc.

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Northeastern Division

December 10, 2014

JOSEPH E. KING, Plaintiff,
v.
ADTRAN, INC., Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDERS

C. LYNWOOD SMITH, Jr., District Judge.

Plaintiff, Joseph King, asserts claims for age discrimination and retaliation in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, 29 U.S.C. § 621 et seq. ("ADEA"), and the Alabama Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1997, Ala. Code § 25-1-20 et seq. (1975) ("AADEA"), against his former employer, Adtran, Inc.[1] Plaintiff's complaint also asserts a state-law claim for "negligent and/or wanton hiring, training, supervision and retention."[2] The case presently is before the court on defendant's motion for summary judgment.[3] Upon consideration of the pleadings, briefs, and evidentiary submissions, this court concludes that the motion should be granted.

I. SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARDS

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 provides that a court "shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows 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). In other words, summary judgment is proper "after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to 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." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). "In making this determination, the court must review all evidence and make all reasonable inferences in favor of the party opposing summary judgment." Chapman v. AI Transport, 229 F.3d 1012, 1023 (11th Cir. 2000) ( en banc ) (quoting Haves v. City of Miami, 52 F.3d 918, 921 (11th Cir. 1995)). Inferences in favor of the non-moving party are not unqualified, however. "[A]n inference is not reasonable if it is only a guess or a possibility, for such an inference is not based on the evidence, but is pure conjecture and speculation." Daniels v. Twin Oaks Nursing Home, 692 F.2d 1321, 1324 (11th Cir. 1983) (alteration supplied). Moreover,

[t]he mere existence of some factual dispute will not defeat summary judgment unless that factual dispute is material to an issue affecting the outcome of the case. The relevant rules of substantive law dictate the materiality of a disputed fact. A genuine issue of material fact does not exist unless there is sufficient evidence favoring the nonmoving party for a reasonable jury to return a verdict in its favor.

Chapman, 229 F.3d at 1023 (quoting Haves, 52 F.3d at 921) (emphasis and alteration supplied). See also Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 251-52 (1986) (asking "whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law").

II. SUMMARY OF FACTS

Adtran, Inc., headquartered in Huntsville, Alabama, designs and manufactures telecommunications equipment, and employs approximately 2, 500 persons around the world.[4] The company does not market its telecommunications equipment directly to consumers.[5] Instead, it sells to other companies that, in turn, sell to consumers. Adtran refers to this structure as a "sales channel."[6]

Adtran markets its products through two types of sales channels: a "Network Service Provider" channel and a "Value Added Reseller" channel.[7] A Network Service Provider ("NSP") is a media carrier company ( e.g., AT&T) that sells "enterprise products" ( e.g., routers and switches) to consumers.[8] A Value Added Reseller ("VAR") is a company that markets and sells Adtran data communication products and services to consumers.[9] Adtran's sales employees are expected to develop relationships with Network Service Providers and Value Added Resellers, and to divide their time equally between the two sales channels.[10]

A. Joseph King's Employment at Adtran

Plaintiff, Joseph King, was hired into Adtran's sales department as a "channel account manager" in 1996.[11] He held several sales positions at the company before his 2003 promotion to "Territory Manager for the Southeast."[12] In that position, plaintiff was responsible for Network Service Provider and Value Added Reseller sales in Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Florida.[13] His responsibilities included "territory management, " cultivating relationships with Network Service Providers and Value Added Resellers, and developing new sales opportunities.[14] Like all sales employees at Adtran, plaintiff's compensation included sales commissions, the size of which depended upon his performance in relation to quotas set by his supervisors.[15] Plaintiff held the position of Territory Manager for the Southeast until his employment was terminated on March 20, 2012.[16]

The identity of the person who served as plaintiff's direct supervisor during the time he held the position of Territory Manager for the Southeast is not clear. It is undisputed, however, that Tom Koch became one of plaintiff's supervisors on March 23, 2011: the date on which Koch was promoted to the position of "Director of Sales for Value Added Resellers in the United States."[17] Koch's promotion coincided with Adtran's decision to prioritize the Value Added Reseller sales channel, and to create a Value Added Reseller-only sales team beginning the following year, in January of 2012.[18] Director of Sales Dave Sanford also served as plaintiff's supervisor while plaintiff held the position of Territory Manager for the Southeast.[19] Vice President of Sales Ted Cole served as direct supervisor of both Tom Koch and Dave Sanford.[20] B.

Plaintiff's Performance Improvement Plan ("PIP")

As plaintiff's immediate supervisor, Tom Koch frequently evaluated plaintiff's performance by reviewing his weekly reports, partner participation data, and sales activity.[21] During 2011 Koch identified several aspects of plaintiff's performance that concerned him. First, he determined that plaintiff was failing to meet his Value Added Reseller sales quota.[22] That concerned Koch, because plaintiff was slated to join Koch's Value Added Reseller-only sales team that was to be established the following year, in January of 2012.[23] Second, Vice President of Sales Ted Cole informed Koch that one of plaintiff's Value Added Resellers had complained that plaintiff had not been devoting sufficient time to developing a relationship with that company.[24] Finally, Koch received complaints from an account manager hired to assist plaintiff with sales in Florida that plaintiff "was not returning his calls and not traveling with him."[25] Based upon those and other concerns, Koch decided to issue plaintiff a "Performance Improvement Plan" (PIP): a document that identifies areas of an employee's job duties and responsibilities that require improvement, defines clear performance expectations, and specifies a discrete time period within which the employee must meet the performance expectations.[26] Plaintiff's Performance Improvement Plan was intended to last for sixty days. Before Koch delivered the document to plaintiff, however, he consulted Frank Humphrey, Adtran's Employment Relations and Compliance Manager, who reviewed the Plan for clarity and fairness.[27]

Koch issued the Performance Improvement Plan to plaintiff on November 17, 2011, and discussed it with him during a telephone conversation that same day.[28] Koch told plaintiff that he had issued the PIP because he wanted plaintiff to raise his sales performance to the level of his peers.[29] The first page of the plan listed several aspects of plaintiff's performance that Koch found to be inadequate:

• Partner coverage in the Territory. Feedback from partners suggesting you're unwilling to work with them.
• Inability to manage accounts in your territory as illustrated by numerous customer problems and lost business without your knowledge (UNA [University of North Alabama], State of Alabama opportunities, Madison County opportunities as examples)
• Not a positive example for others to follow.
• Consistent under performance of Value Added Reseller segment for 2 years. Performance in 2010 below 71% of plan. 2011 Performance below plan 8 out of the first 10 months
• Not motivated, doesn't demonstrate a positive, optimistic attitude.
• Poor communication skills.
• Lack of demonstrated knowledge of policies or processes: specialization, deal registration, on-boarding partners, ongoing partner lifestyle management.
• Failure to manage time to drive towards strategic goals. Does not reinforce EN ...

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