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Rooney v. Rock-Term Converting Co.

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

January 9, 2018

Aaron C. Rooney, Plaintiff- Appellant,
Rock-Term Converting Company; Rock-Tenn Services, Inc; Westrock Company; Defendants-Appellees.

          Submitted: April 6, 2017

         Appeal from United States District Court for the Western District of Arkansas - Fayetteville.

          Before COLLOTON and BENTON, Circuit Judges, and GERRARD, [1] District Judge.


         Aaron C. Rooney was fired and sued his former employer, alleging that he was discriminated against for being male and non-Jewish. But his former employer, Rock-Tenn Services, Inc., [2] contends that Rooney was fired for poor performance. The district court[3] granted summary judgment for Rock-Tenn. We affirm.


         Rooney was hired in March 2010 by Dean Metter, Rock-Tenn's vice-president of business development and key retailers, as an account executive in Rock-Tenn's Bentonville, Arkansas office. Rock-Tenn was in the business of making packaging and displays for retail merchants, and Rooney was responsible for developing and selling in-store displays in the market served by the Bentonville office. One of his primary responsibilities was Rock-Tenn's account with Alcon.

         Rooney reported to Metter until September 2013, when Nancy Collom was hired and became Rooney's direct supervisor. But Rooney's November 2013 performance evaluation was still completed by Metter, who gave Rooney an overall rating of 3 out of a possible 5, described as "Met Expectations/Solid Performer." At several points, however, Metter noted issues with office attendance and communication, and Rooney was only rated 2 out of 5 on some aspects of performance affected by those concerns: "Met Most Expectations/Inconsistent Performer." Metter criticized Rooney's "collaborative team work skills" and noted that Rooney did "not communicate effectively in the office, " and also noted that Rooney "fights the new office alignment, " presumably referring to Collom's hiring.

         According to Collom, Rooney was "polite but disrespectful" to her after she became his superior. Collom, like Metter, was dissatisfied with Rooney's communication; in particular, Collom did not believe Rooney kept her sufficiently apprised of his schedule and whereabouts.

         The record also reflects issues with the Alcon account. The responses on Alcon's June 2014 Rock-Tenn customer satisfaction survey indicate general satisfaction with Rock-Tenn's performance: although the Alcon representative completing the survey complained about Rock-Tenn's manager at Alcon's site, Jake Kramer, the survey said that Alcon was otherwise "pleased" with the account management. But later that month, Ashley Olson, Alcon's manager for retail displays, emailed Rock-Tenn seeking a "full process review" of Rock-Tenn's operations due to recent problems, and listing the Rock-Tenn employees she expected to attend the meeting at Alcon.

         Despite that, quality control and shipping problems persisted. In July 2014, an Alcon job was printed upside-down, and by August, Olson informed Rock-Tenn that because of Rock-Tenn's mistakes, Alcon was in danger of missing its own delivery deadlines to Walmart. And, she wrote, Alcon was losing sales as a result of reduced in-store availability. If an expected delivery wasn't made on time, Olson wrote, Alcon would expect Rock-Tenn to cover any fines Walmart imposed.

         Later in August, Metter emailed Rooney about a particular Alcon project, instructing him: "Need to be proactive and push everyday. We want to micro manage this project." But a few days later, Metter wrote in a separate email to Rock-Tenn's human resources director that despite Olson's request to micro-manage the project, "[Rooney] did not follow up per [Olson]'s request." Metter also forwarded an overall assessment of the Bentonville office, which noted Rooney's success in growing the business, but opining that Rooney "is lazy and lacks desire to help grow the local marketplace. His internal communication skills are severely lacking both to his boss [Collom] and the office. He should be replaced because of attitude but we must find Alcon replacement."

         In September 2014, Rock-Tenn failed to deliver Alcon sample products to a trade show. Olson emailed Rooney and Kramer on September 3, making them aware that it was "important that [the shipment] arrive on [September 10], " preferably in the morning, for the September 11 event. But it was discovered on September 10 that the products were damaged, and they hadn't been shipped. At the same time, on September 9, Olson had emailed Rooney and others at Rock-Tenn about a different problem: an unexpected surplus of a particular display was showing in Rock-Tenn's inventory, without explanation. It was discovered that the shipment tracking had been inaccurate, and that the surplus inventory was actually product that had not been delivered. Olson was "baffled how this has happened twice now, " and was "really confused" by the oversight. She wrote, "We have to get this under control."

         On September 18, Olson emailed Metter complaining, not just about missed shipments (and there were more by then), but about the lack of response from Rock-Tenn to persistent inquiries from Alcon's representatives. Olson wrote that "we have our people working to try to help resolve the issues but that lack of responses is just not acceptable." Rock-Tenn, she wrote, "need[ed] to stop the bleeding with missed shipments and late shipments . . . ." Alcon had been fined three percent of invoice by Walmart for late orders in August and September, and asked Rock-Tenn to reimburse those expenses.

         Olson repeatedly emailed Rock-Tenn's representatives-including Metter, Kramer, and Rooney-complaining about Rock-Tenn's failure to respond to Alcon's requests for information and assistance. In late September, there was another delay in shipping Alcon products, occasioned in part by internal questions about production going unanswered. In October, another set of displays that were supposed to have been shipped went missing, and Olson had to email repeatedly because Rock-Tenn's investigation into the matter did not proceed promptly. In the end, Metter wrote, "[Alcon] is tremendously frustrated. Key comment is around Alcon is why ...

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