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Case Number: 1:21-CV-0975
Judge: Bridgett Meehan Brennan
Court: United States District Court for the Northern District of Ohio (Cuyahoga County)
Defendant's Attorney: Andrew J. Dorman and Amy Ryder Wentz
Description: Cleveland, Ohio civil litigation lawyer represented Plaintiff, who sued Defendant on breach of contract and other theories.
Headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee, Bonded is a preventative maintenance service provider for commercial heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (“HVAC”) systems. (Buckosh Dep., Doc. No. 46-4 at PageID 835-36; Ashwood Dec., Doc. No. 46-2 at PageID 802.) Matthew Ashwood purchased Bonded in 2003 and became the chief executive officer. (Ashwood Dec., Doc. No. 46-2 at PageID 802.) Bonded makes a patented air filter product called PleatLink that Bonded technicians use to service air filtration systems. (Id.) The product is purchased by
customers and installed by a Bonded technician. (Id.) Bonded also employs personnel who sell service contracts, market filters to new customers, and manage relationships with existing customers. (Id.)
In 2018, Bonded acquired PureAir, another preventative service provider for commercial HVAC systems. (Id. at PageID 803.) After the acquisition, Bonded restructured and expanded its executive leadership team. (Id.) Bonded hired Curtis Czemeres as president and Steve MacWilliams as the chief revenue officer. (Id.) In April 2019, after this new leadership was in place, Ashwood changed his title from chief operating officer to executive chairman. (Id.)
Czemeres created the position of business development manager and recruited Plaintiff Debra Dixon Buckosh for that position. (Ashwood Dec., Doc. No. 46-2 at PageID 802; Czemeres Dep., Doc. No. 46-5 at PageID 995-97.) Czemeres and Plaintiff had previously worked together. (Czemeres Dep., Doc. No 46-5 at PageID 995.) Plaintiff's employment offer letter, along with Bonded's employee handbook (to which Plaintiff consented), indicates that Plaintiff was an at-will employee. (Buckosh Dep., Doc. No. 46-4 at PageID 939; Buckosh Offer Letter, Doc No. 56-6 at PageID 1434.) The offer letter also contains a severance provision, which states:
In the event of separation, you will be eligible for a severance package. The company will provide three (3) month's severance, subject to local, state, and federal withholdings, provided the basis of the separation is without cause.
(Buckosh Offer Letter, Doc No. 56-6 at PageID 1434.)
Plaintiff began working at Bonded in early 2019. (Id. at PageID 1433.) She reported directly to MacWilliams. (Id.)
Bonded terminated Plaintiff on February 26, 2020. (MacWilliams Dec., Doc. No. 46-3 at PageID 816; Ashwood Dec., Doc. No. 46-2 at PageID 803.) She was offered a severance package if she agreed to sign a release of claims. (Buckosh Dep., Doc. No. 46-4 at PageID 863, 991-92.) Plaintiff did not sign the release and did not receive any severance pay. (Id.)
Bonded terminated Czemeres on February 14, 2020. (Ashwood Dec., Doc. No. 46-2 at PageID 803.) Ashwood once again became Bonded's chief executive officer. (Id.) After that, Bonded terminated MacWilliams on March 20, 2020. (Id.) Further, Bonded also terminated two other male sales employees on March 24, 2020. (Id. at PageID 803-04.) Bonded retained two male sales employees and one female sales employee. (Id.)
The parties agree on very little else.
2. Plaintiff's Factual Allegations
Plaintiff immediately ran into problems when she started at Bonded.
Ashwood - who had objections to her hiring - routinely interfered with her ability to perform her job. (Doc. No. 55 at PageID 1087, 1090.) He undermined her in front of customers, failed to provide her with relevant information regarding accounts, and removed her from tasks assigned by her direct supervisors. (Id. at PageID 1090.) Ashwood also had an inappropriate sexual conversation in Plaintiff's presence. (Id.) He eventually hired an independent contractor who made Plaintiff feel surveilled. (Id. at PageID 1091.) Ashwood did not treat male employees this way. (Id.) MacWilliams and Czemeres knew about Ashwood's behavior but chose to do nothing about it. (Id. at PageID 1090.)
While not as actively hostile as Ashwood, MacWilliams was of little help to Plaintiff and refused to participate in weekly meetings he had scheduled with her. (Id. at PageID 1091.) MacWilliams did not treat male employees like this. (Id.)
Despite these challenges, Plaintiff succeeded in her role. (Id. at PageID 1096-97.) She closed sales with Sherwin Williams, Carrier Corporation, Advanced Auto Parts, Circle-K and
Save Mart - totaling around four million dollars. (Id.) Apart from these sales, she helped save an account with Jones, Lange, LaSalle, who Bonded was on the verge of losing as a customer. (Id. at PageID 1097.) Her sales numbers were much higher than the output of the non-terminated male employees. (Id. at PageID 1099.)
Throughout her employment, Bonded had no set system for tracking sales. It switched to a new sales tracking software shortly after she arrived, but employee training was still occurring as of the month of her termination. (Id. at PageID 1095.) Bonded also never established a general a policy for determining which employee(s) would get credit for sales. (Id.)
Shortly before terminating Plaintiff, Bonded hired Todd Rickman. (Id. at PageID 1094.) Rickman started 16 days before Plaintiff's termination and was given the title of “Business Development-Sales.” (Id.) This title was similar to hers. (Id.) Rickman was also assigned one of Plaintiff's accounts. (Id.)
3. Defendants' Factual Allegations
Defendants paint a different picture of Plaintiff's time at Bonded. Bonded failed to meet its revenue target after merging with PureAir. (Doc. No. 46-1 at PageID 787.) This underperformance was partly due to Plaintiff. (Id.) Bonded hired Plaintiff to make major sales, and all she ended up closing was a sale to Advanced Auto Parts. (Id.) This account generated little revenue. (Id.) After terminating Plaintiff, Bonded eliminated her position. (Id.) Bonded leadership determined it was not worth the expense. (Id.)
Plaintiff was not the only high-level employee terminated for underperformance. (Id.) Bonded terminated Czemeres. (Id.) Bonded also fired MacWilliams and other sales employees. (Id. at PageID 788.) Plaintiff was treated no differently than male employees. (Id.) She, like everyone else at Bonded, was merely evaluated on the merits. (Id.)
As far as Ashwood's behavior is concerned, Defendants acknowledge that he could be demanding to work with but treated everyone the same. (Id. PageID at 799.)
B. Procedural Background
On April 6, 2021, Plaintiff initiated this action against Bonded Filter Company, LLC, Matthew Ashwood, Michael Massaro, Steven MacWilliams, Lee Ann Shepard, Avalt, and Mark Verdi in the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas. (Doc. No. 1-1.) The complaint contains three counts: a gender discrimination claim under Ohio's employment discrimination laws (Count I), a retaliation claim under Ohio's employment discrimination laws (Count II), and a breach of contract claim (Count III). (Id.) On May 5, 2021, the defendants removed the case to federal court because complete diversity existed between the parties, and the amount in controversy exceeded $75,000. (Doc. No. 1.) On June 17, 202, Matthew Ashwood, Michael Massaro, Steven MacWilliams, and Lee Ann Shephard filed a motion to dismiss this case, as they contended the Court lacked personal jurisdiction over them. (Doc. No. 5.) The Court granted the motion in part and dismissed Massaro and Shephard, but it determined it had personal jurisdiction over Ashwood and MacWilliams. (Doc. No. 12.) After the close of discovery, Defendants submitted the instant motion for summary judgement.
Buckosh v. Bonded Filter Co. (N.D. Ohio 2022)
Outcome: For the reason stated above, Defendants' motion for summary judgment is GRANTED in part and DENIED in part. (Doc. No. 46.)
IT IS SO ORDERED.