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Kertanis v. Georgia-Pacific Gypsum, LLC

United States District Court, D. New Hampshire

May 26, 2016

Joseph Kertanis
Georgia-Pacific Gypsum, LLC Opinion No. 2016 DNH 082

          Elizabeth B. Olcott, Esq.

          Daniel B. Klein, Esq.

          Jean M. Wilson, Esq.

          Brian L. Michaelis, Esq.


          Joseph N. Laplane, United States District Judge.

         In this state-law employment action, the court is asked to decide at the summary judgment stage, as it often is in cases of this type, [1] why the defendant fired the plaintiff. In a number of cases, the summary judgment record is not sufficiently conclusive to permit that decision. In this case, however, it is.

         Joseph Kertanis claims that defendant Georgia-Pacific Gypsum, LLC (GP) fired him from GP’s Newington, New Hampshire, plant because he was critical of the plant's human resources manager and after he responded to what he perceived to be a co-worker’s dangerous work habits. GP claims it fired Kertanis for verbally abusing and harassing the co-worker. This court has diversity jurisdiction over this action between Kertanis, a New Hampshire citizen, and the defendant, an out-of-state corporation. See 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a)(1).

         Before the court is GP’s motion for summary judgment, in which it argues that the undisputed record lacks any evidence of either the bad faith or the public policy rationale necessary to support Kertanis’s claims. After oral argument and review of the parties’ submissions, the court finds that the undisputed facts show that GP fired Kertanis because he verbally abused the co-worker, an action that public policy does not condone. GP’s motion is therefore granted.

         I. Applicable legal standard

         Summary judgment is appropriate where “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). A dispute is “genuine” if it could reasonably be resolved in either party’s favor at trial. See Estrada v. Rhode Island, 594 F.3d 56, 62 (1st Cir. 2010) (citing Meuser v. Fed. Express Corp., 564 F.3d 507, 515 (1st Cir. 2009)). A fact is “material” if it could sway the outcome under applicable law. Id. (citing Vineberg v. Bissonnette, 548 F.3d 50, 56 (1st Cir. 2008)).

         In analyzing a summary judgment motion, the court “views all facts and draws all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the non-moving party.” Id. The court will not credit conclusory allegations or speculation. See Meuser, 564 F.3d at 515; Sea Shore Corp. v. Sullivan, 158 F.3d 51, 54 (1st Cir. 1998). With this standard in place, the court turns to the facts of the case, highlighting only those necessary to the resolution of the instant motion.

         II. Background facts

         Kertanis started working there at GP’s Newington plant in September 1998. The plant produces wall board and drywall by processing raw gypsum ore. Kertanis filled a variety of roles at the plant during his time there.[2] At the time of his termination, Kertanis was working an overnight (11:00 PM to 7:30 AM) shift.

         Production employees such as Kertanis at the Newington plant work on self-directed teams without direct supervisors. Each team is responsible for assigning work to its members, ensuring quality standards and managing all other aspects of the team’s performance. Some team members act as “coordinators” responsible for certain administrative functions, including human resources, safety, environmental, quality, and business. The Newington plant also has a Resource Team which consists of management-level employees overseeing production and other aspects of the business. Finally, the Newington Plant has a Plant Management Team (“PMT”) that typically consists of the Plant Manager, the Human Resources Manager, and other management personnel. Each production team is responsible for addressing employee discipline issues. When an employee discipline issue arises, the employee’s team meets to discuss the issue. The team then decides on the disciplinary action to be taken. Most discipline, including verbal or written warnings, can be issued by the team. If the team believes an employee should be terminated, the team’s recommendation is forwarded to the PMT for consideration. The PMT can affirm, reject, or modify the team’s recommendation. At the time relevant to this litigation, Kertanis was working on Team 3.

         GP Hired Nick Philbrook as a machine operator in October 2010. Philbrook was soon working on Team 3 with Kertanis, Team 3 human resources coordinator Jim Michalski, and the team's production coordinator, Shane Stevens. The trio was responsible for training Philbrook. Initially, Philbrook performed well. According to Kertanis, however, Philbrook’s performance began faltering in January 2011, when he began working the overnight shift. After discussion with Philbrook, Kertanis determined that Philbrook was having sleep issues that interfered with his work. On January 4, 2011, Philbrook was disciplined. Eventually, Philbrook's training on all equipment other than the forklift was suspended. As a result, Team 3 workers were questioning whether Philbrook would have to be transferred to a different area within GP.

         Meanwhile, in March 2011, Kertanis got into a dispute with the plant’s human resources manager, Sandra Heald, over unrelated issues that involved neither Philbrook nor safety concerns: the firing of a manager and the later re-hiring of an employee whom Kertanis believed was ineligible for re-hire. When Kertanis raised these issues with Heald, she told him that he “should look for work elsewhere” if he ...

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