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Novara v. SpartanNash Associates, LLC

United States District Court, W.D. Michigan, Southern Division

September 27, 2017

PAUL NOVARA, Plaintiff,



         Plaintiff, Paul Novara, sued his former employer, SpartanNash Associates, LLC, alleging that SpartanNash discriminated against him on the basis of his age in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), 29 U.S.C. § 621 et seq., and the Michigan Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act (ELCRA), M.C.L. §§ 37.2101, et seq., when it terminated him for failing to meet SpartanNash's performance expectations.[1] SpartanNash has moved for summary judgment, and the Court heard oral argument on September 11, 2017.

         The issue for the Court is whether Novara has presented sufficient evidence of pretext to survive summary judgment. The Court answers no, and will grant SpartanNash's motion.[2]

         I. Background

         In 2013, Grand Rapids, Michigan-based Spartan Stores, Inc. merged with Minneapolis-based Nash Finch Company, resulting in SpartanNash Company, the parent company of Defendant SpartanNash. (ECF No. 46-2 at PageID.148.) Prior to the merger, Spartan operated grocery distribution and retail stores in Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio, and Nash operated a wholesale grocery network and grocery distribution centers for military commissaries and exchanges. (Id.) The merger was announced in July 2013 and completed in November 2013. (ECF No. 46-6 at PageID.179-80.)

         Novara had been employed by Nash. Novara began working for Nash in 2006 as a merchandiser and eventually became a category manager. (Id. at PageID.175-76.) At the time of the merger, Novara was the category manager for general merchandise, which included items such as pet supplies, brooms, mops, and aluminum foil. For a brief time, Novara was also responsible for candy, gum, and mints. (Id. at PageID.177.) Nash also had another category manager for general merchandise who separately handled health and beauty care. (Id.) The two category managers also had some administrative support. (Id.) For several months after the merger, Novara assumed responsibility for Nash's health and beauty care products as the two companies combined and Nash employees began to leave. (Id.)

         At the time of the merger, Novara had been reporting to Roy Fossum at Nash. (Id.) Novara served as Fossum's lead person during the transition period for merger-related work. (ECF No. 47-2 at PageID.318.) This work included training legacy Spartan employees who visited Minneapolis about the Nash-side of the business, including category management. (ECF No. 46-6 at PageID.182-83, 196.) Novara continued to report to Fossum until June 2014, when Fossum accepted a position in Omaha, Nebraska. (ECF No. 48-2 at PageID.407.) From June to August 2014, Novara reported to Karen Bakewell, Spartan's Director of General Merchandise/Health and Beauty Care (GM/HBC). (ECF No. 46-6 at PageID.182.) Based on his discussions with Fossum, who had worked with Bakewell for a period of time following the merger, as well as Novara's own interactions with Bakewell, Novara concluded that Bakewell was very detail oriented, “wanted control of absolutely everything, ” and was a difficult supervisor. (Id. at PageID.186-87.)

         After the merger was completed, Novara accepted an offer to move to Grand Rapids to continue working as a category manager for SpartanNash. (Id. at PageID.180-81.) Novara moved to Grand Rapids in August 2014. (Id. at PageID.178.) Novara received SpartanNash's standard relocation package and, at Novara's request, an additional $10, 000 to help offset the fees Novara paid to sell his house. (Id. at PageID.181.) Novara also requested a pay raise, but SpartanNash denied the request, in part, because Novara would already be the highest-paid category manager at SpartanNash in the CM/HBC area. (Id.; ECF No. 46-4 at PageID.164.)

         Novara continued to report to Bakewell when he moved to Grand Rapids. Novara was 61 years old when he began reporting to Bakewell, and Bakewell was 58 years old. (ECF No. 46-6 at PageID.174; ECF No. 46-2 at PageID.148.) In contrast to Nash, where Novara had been one of only two GM/HBC managers and was assisted by two assistant category managers and one administrative employee (ECF No. 46-6 at PageID.177), in Grand Rapids with SpartanNash, Novara was one of nine GM/HBC category managers, all of whom reported to Bakewell. (ECF No. 46-2.) Novara was assigned to work in a “pod” with two other category managers, Cassandra Nino and Dan Kowalski, and an administrative assistant to support those three category managers. (ECF No. 46-6 at PageID.187-88.) As part of the consolidation of GM/HBC category management in Grand Rapids, Bakewell reallocated categories among category managers by product line, and assigned Novara pet supplies, batteries, continuities (for example, a piece-of-the-week program that could be combined as a set, such as pots and pans), dollar (products that can be sold for a dollar), and closeouts (overstock products that can be sold at a deep discount). (Id. at PageID.188; ECF No. 46-3 at PageID.156.) Bakewell considered those categories a “starter desk, ” meaning that they were a smaller number of less-complex categories that would allow Novara to learn the new system, and he would be assigned additional general merchandise categories after about six months, once he settled in and learned his new role. (Id. at PageID.162.)

         Although Bakewell was optimistic about Novara's performance when he began his new position, by the end of 2014, Bakewell noted some issues of concern, particularly Novara's declining sales. (Id. at 157.) As part of her process for evaluating category managers' annual performances, Bakewell prepared a scorecard, ranking all of the category managers according to year-end sales results. (ECF No. 46-2 at PageID.148-49.) Novara-the most experienced and highest-paid category manager in Bakewell's group-ranked last overall. (Id. at PageID.148-49, 151; ECF No. 46-6 at PageID.212.) Bakewell also noted other performance issues and raised them, along with declining sales, in Novara's annual performance evaluation. Novara acknowledged that his overall total Warehouse Sales were down 7.7% from the prior year for his assigned categories and his Vendor Gross Budget profit margins were down 5.8% for overall Warehouse Sales. (ECF No. 46-6 at PageID.220.) Bakewell stated that Novara “was given a light category assignment [but] he has not been able to manage his business successfully, ” and that his “[r]esults are very disappointing and [it is] troubling that Paul was unable to implement plans to correct.” (Id.) Bakewell also noted several areas in which Novara needed improvement, including his knowledge of Spartan systems. (Id. at PageID.221-22.) In her overall summary, Bakewell wrote that Novara's performance fell short of the minimum expectations of the position and needed immediate improvement, and that Novara needed “to fulfill his commitment to being all in and generating positive sales and margin results.” (Id. at PageID.223.)

         On April 14, 2015, Bakewell issued Novara a Written Warning and Performance Improvement Plan (PIP) because Novara's sales numbers continued to decline through the first quarter of 2015. In addition to declining sales, Bakewell noted other aspects of Novara's performance that required immediate improvement, including the accuracy and timeliness of his work, effective communication, and knowledge of SpartanNash business systems. Bakewell also pointed out that Novara was the only category manager who did not attend the March and April training sessions for AIMIA, a software program used by category managers. (Id. at PageID.225-26.) The PIP noted that Novara had been receiving weekly guidance through meetings with Bakewell and that Novara's performance would be reviewed in 30 days. (Id. at PageID.224.)

         Bakewell continued her weekly meetings with Novara after the PIP and gave Novara an additional 30 days to improve his performance before conducting her review. On June 12, 2015, Bakewell met with Novara to review his progress. Bakewell did observe “effort and some improvement, ” but she found that his “performance [was] still not meeting expectations.” (Id. at PageID.229.) In particular, Bakewell observed that Novara's sales were still declining, and he needed immediate improvement in his decision making and accountability. (Id.) Bakewell gave Novara an additional 30 days to improve his performance. Novara disagreed with Bakewell's assessment and refused to sign the follow-up document; however, he acknowledged that the sales numbers Bakewell reported were accurate. (Id. at PageID.210.) Although Novara admits that Bakewell was not fabricating her criticisms, he believed she was “blowing things out of proportion because everybody was making mistakes.” (Id. at PageID.211.)

         At the end of the 30-day period, Bakewell decided that Novara had not met the requirements of his PIP. A key part of Bakewell's decision was a planogram-a schematic that stores use for planning and execution of product sales-that Novara created for pet supplies that Bakewell considered a “total disaster.” (ECF No. 46-3 at PageID.159.) Bakewell received a number of complaints from end users about serious errors in the planogram that precluded its use. (Id.) In particular, the planogram contained numerous discontinued items and failed to specify the markdown process for discontinuing products, and Novara failed to complete purchasing documentation to ensure that new product was on hand. (Id.) Bakewell thus had to stop the product “resets” and recall the planogram until it could be corrected. (Id.) Consequently, on July 13, 2015, Novara was terminated for performance issues. (ECF No. 46-6 at PageID.213.)

         II. ...

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