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Winkelman v. AgStar Financial Services, ACA

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

November 7, 2017

Nancy J. Winkelman, Plaintiff,
v.
AgStar Financial Services, ACA, Defendant.

          Jeffrey D. Schiek, Esq., and Philip G. Villaume, Esq., Villaume & Schiek, P.A., Bloomington, MN, on behalf of Plaintiff.

          Kerry L. Middleton, Esq., Littler Mendelson, PC, Minneapolis, MN, and Tessa K. Mlsna, Esq., Gray Plant Mooty, Minneapolis, MN, on behalf of Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          ANN D. MONTGOMERY U.S. DISTRICT JUDGE

         I. INTRODUCTION

         On August 17, 2017, the undersigned United States District Judge heard oral argument on Defendant AgStar Financial Services, ACA's (“AgStar” or the “Company”) Motion for Summary Judgment [Docket No. 18]. Plaintiff Nancy J. Winkelman (“Winkelman”) alleges that AgStar retaliated against her in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, 29 U.S.C. § 623(a). Compl. [Docket No. 1] ¶¶ 20-35. For the reasons set forth below, AgStar's motion is granted.

         II. BACKGROUND

         A. AgStar and its Annual Review Process

         AgStar is a Financial Services company that provides a broad range of financial services for agricultural and rural clients in northwestern Wisconsin and Minnesota. Bridger Decl. [Docket No. 22] ¶ 2.

         Central to this dispute is AgStar's annual employee review process. In January and February of each year, supervisors conduct annual performance reviews of their team members. Mlsna Decl. [Docket No. 21] Ex. A (“Winkelman Dep.”) 129:7-10. Supervisors are instructed to rate their team members' performance as “On Target” or “Unsatisfactory” using performance metrics. Bridger Decl. Ex. 2. By comparing an employee's performance metrics to that of their peers, the performance metrics largely serve as the basis for annual salary adjustments and promotion decisions. Bridger Decl. ¶ 4; Mlsna Decl. Ex. F; Paur Decl. [Docket No. 23] ¶ 7.

         Each year, AgStar sets an overall budget for salary increases, and the Human Resources (“HR”) department prepares Salary Administration Guidelines to assist supervisors in distributing the salary increases within the budget. Bridger Decl. ¶ 7. These guidelines also provide insight into an employee's progression through the salary range for their position. Id.

         Immediate supervisors make initial recommendations of their employees' salary increases and promotions. Winkelman Dep. 99:16-100:8. The initial recommendations are reviewed and approved by upper management to ensure consistency with AgStar's budget for annual pay increases. Mlsna Decl. Ex. V (“Kramer Dep.”) 25:23-26:7.

         B. Winkelman's 2011 Charge of Discrimination

         Winkelman starting working at AgStar as a Farm Records Technician in 1994. Winkelman Dep. 55:19-20. She currently works at salary grade 11 as a Senior Business Analyst in AgStar's Baldwin, Wisconsin location. Id. Since 1994, Winkelman has received an annual salary increase and has been promoted every three to four years. Id. 43:21-24; 164:3-6. Winkelman's supervisors have rated her “On Target” in all of her annual performance reviews. Id. 49:2-6; 129:20-23.

         On May 5, 2011, Winkelman filed a Charge of Discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”). Schiek Aff. [Docket No. 27] Ex. C at 2-5 (“2011 EEOC Charge”). Winkelman alleged that her then-supervisor, Mel Pearson (“Pearson”), made salary and promotional decisions based upon her age and gender. Id. Winkelman cross-filed the 2011 charge with the Wisconsin Equal Rights Division (“ERD”). Id. at 1.

         AgStar's HR representative, Leah Bridger (“Bridger”), investigated Winkelman's allegations. Winkelman Dep. 103:15-21; Mlsna Decl. Ex. P (“Bridger Dep.”) 39:12-18. Bridger spoke with Winkelman to develop an understanding about her claim. Bridger Dep. 39:20-25. Bridger then interviewed Pearson and Winkelman's higher-level supervisors, Owen Thompson (“Thompson”) and Jeff Kramer (“Kramer”). Id. 40:13-16. Bridger stated that her investigation did not substantiate Winkelman's claims, and concluded that AgStar did not discriminate against Winkelman. Id. 42:12-21.

         On August 3, 2012, the EEOC dismissed Winkelman's charge without finding evidence to support her allegations of discrimination. Mlsna Decl. Ex. C. The ERD claim remained open until Winkelman voluntarily withdrew it on June 16, 2014. Schiek Aff. Ex. S.

         C. Winkelman's 2014 Performance Review

         In late 2013, Pearson retired and Bryan Paur (“Paur”), who was Winkelman's peer, was promoted into Pearson's position. Mlsna Decl. Ex. S (“Paur Dep.”) 13:9-14. Paur directly supervised three employees, including Winkelman. Paur Dep. 11:4-8.

         1. Paur Evaluates Winkelman's Performance

         Paur evaluated Winkelman's year 2014 performance in January and February 2015. Winkelman Dep. 129:11-19; Paur Dep. 21:13-15. During this evaluation period, Winkelman was a Business Analyst, salary grade 10. Paur Decl. ¶ 4. In that position, Winkelman worked with AgStar's intermediate sized clients and underwrote loan applications, completed accrual earning and financial reconciliation, and monitored loan performance. Id.

         Winkelman's productivity results were largely based on nine objective performance metrics: 1) number of loans closed; 2) loan amount requested; 3) loan amount approved; 4) financial statements reviewed; 5) earnings statements reviewed; 6) number of financial reviews completed; 7) overrides; 8) farm visits; and 9) client information files. Paur Decl. ¶ 5, Ex. 1. Paur determined that, compared to her peers, Winkelman scored below average on some, above average on a few, and around average on ...


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