Hayes v. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota, Inc.

Decision Date08 June 1998
Docket NumberCivil No. 4-96-932(JRT/RLE).
Citation21 F.Supp.2d 960
PartiesJean M. HAYES, Plaintiff, v. BLUE CROSS BLUE SHIELD OF MINNESOTA, INC., Defendant.
CourtU.S. District Court — District of Minnesota

Michael J. Corbin, Karen Louise Dingle, Dingle Law Office, Minneapolis, MN, for Plaintiff.

William John Egan, Rider Bennett Egan & Arundel, Minneapolis, MN, for Defendant.


ERICKSON, United States Magistrate Judge.

I. Introduction

This matter came before the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge pursuant to a general assignment, made in accordance with the provisions of Title 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B), upon the Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment.

A Hearing on the Motion was conducted on December 8, 1997, at which time, the Plaintiff appeared by Karen L. Dingle, Esq., and the Defendant, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota, Inc. ("Blue Cross"), appeared by William J. Egan, Esq.

For reasons which follow, we recommend that the Motion for Summary Judgment be granted.

II. Factual and Procedural History

The Plaintiff, who is a resident of the State of Missouri, had been an employee of Blue Cross for ten years, working at its office in Eagan, Minnesota, until her employment was terminated in 1993. She began her employment when she was a high school student, as a part-time filing clerk in the general office. She soon obtained full-time employment at Blue Cross and has filled, over the years, a variety of positions, such as claims processor, adjustment clerk, and data entry clerk.

In 1988, the Plaintiff entered the billing department, where she eventually obtained the position of "membership services specialist." A membership services specialist is generally responsible for performing all membership processing functions, and is charged with the duty of assuring that customers' inquiries, and other needs, are resolved, and responded to, in a timely and accurate fashion. According to a job description, which the Defendant published in December of 1990: "Performance [of a membership services specialist] is measured by the ability to meet established production standards for quantity and quality and to provide help-ful and professional customer service." Branom Depo., Ex. 4.

On February 11, 1989, the Plaintiff was diagnosed with Type I diabetes. This condition requires the Plaintiff to monitor her glucose levels, and to inject herself with insulin four times per day. When first diagnosed, the Plaintiff was hospitalized, and took a medical leave of absence until February 20, 1989. The Plaintiff's doctor advised her that, in addition to monitoring her blood-sugar levels, and taking periodic insulin injections, she should store food at her desk in case her glucose level should drop suddenly. Later, her physician instructed her not to work more than eight hours per day.

According to the Plaintiff, her diabetes has sometimes interfered with her ability to do her job. In particular, the Plaintiff has suffered periodic bouts of blurred vision. From 1989 until early 1992, the Plaintiff would occasionally experience obscured vision that had to be corrected with the use of magnifying glasses. The occurrences of diminished vision, which were the result of blood sugar fluctuations, ordinarily lasted for several weeks, after which the Plaintiff's vision would return to its normal state of 20/20. The Plaintiff maintains that a fluctuation in her blood sugar level can also diminish her ability to concentrate. The physical conditions associated with the Plaintiff's diabetes did not prevent her from performing any of the specific tasks that had been assigned to her, nor did the condition interfere with her ability to care for herself, or to perform any tasks outside of her employment.

Shortly after her return to work, the Plaintiff informed her manager, Donald Branom ("Branom"), of her medical condition, and of her need to keep certain supplies at her desk. She also apprised several of her colleagues, in the billing department, of her condition.

On August 1, 1990, over one year after the onset of the Plaintiff's diabetes, and its accompanying symptoms, the Plaintiff received a rave performance review from her then team leader, Mary Gallus ("Gallus"). Gallus remarked that the Plaintiff's performance had "improved tremendously during this past year." The Plaintiff was described as a "valuable asset" to her team, and was awarded a merit increase, of 8 percent, in her salary. In August of 1991, her job performance was still rated as "very good" by another supervisor, Sandra Erchel ("Erchel").

In the fall of 1991, the Plaintiff became pregnant and, due to the frailty of her condition, which was caused by the taxing combination of pregnancy and diabetes, she went on leave from February of 1992, until her son's birth on April 17, 1992. Thereafter, the Plaintiff took maternity leave until June 26, 1992, as was allowed by the Defendant's medical policy. The Plaintiff wanted to stay at home longer, in order to look after her infant son, who suffered from certain medical complications. Nevertheless, she was instructed to return to work at the end of her maternity leave, in June.

From the time of onset of her diabetes, the Plaintiff was frequently absent from work, for medical reasons. She alleges that her supervisors, and her coworkers, verbally disparaged her because of her medical condition, her pregnancy, and her resulting absenteeism. Her supervisors, including Erchel, sometimes made "comments" about her leaving work such as: "You're gone more than you're here." Erchel also told the Plaintiff, during her pregnancy, that she, Erchel, should be pregnant, rather than the Plaintiff.

The Plaintiff has also testified that, sometime during 1989, she specifically asked Branom if she could be allowed to eat or drink at her desk, but that management issued a general memorandum to the staff which advised that no one would be allowed to eat at his or her desk. It is unknown when the memorandum was issued, but the Plaintiff believes that it could have been distributed during her last year of employment. One of the supervisors, whose identity the Plaintiff could not recall, informed the Plaintiff that, even if her blood sugar should drop, she would still be required to eat outside of her work area. Despite warnings that Blue Cross would not permit food to be consumed at the staffers' desks, the Plaintiff continued to eat at her desk, when needed, with the express permission of other unidentified supervisors, and she was never reprimanded for doing so.

In another incident, in either 1989 or 1990, the Plaintiff picked up the telephone, on the desk of another employee, in order to call her husband and request that he bring her a can of soda pop, because she was experiencing glucose depletion. A fellow employee, Tammy Gorman ("Gorman"), interrupted the Plaintiff's phone call, and explained to her that the Plaintiff should not be using that phone for personal affairs, because Gorman needed to use the telephone for a workrelated call. The Plaintiff explained to Gorman it was an emergency phone call, caused by her low blood sugar, but Gorman insisted that she discontinue her use of the phone. The Plaintiff reported the incident to her manager, Branom, who met privately with Gorman so as to explain that the Plaintiff's phone call was for a medical emergency. According to the Plaintiff, she learned, from a subsequent conversation with Gorman, that Gorman had not understood the Plaintiff's reason for needing to make the phone call. Since that time, the Plaintiff has not had any difficulties with Gorman, attributable to the Plaintiff's medical condition.

The Plaintiff has also described an incident in which her medical condition was disclosed to a Blue Cross customer, and against her wishes. In 1989 or 1990, an employee, whose name the Plaintiff could not recall, told a customer that she had diabetes. Distraught over the disclosure, the Plaintiff immediately requested that the person not give out such information to the general public. There is no evidence that the unauthorized disclosure has ever reoccurred.

Further, the Plaintiff has testified that, at office parties, various members of her department would make off-hand, giggling remarks, which reminded the Plaintiff about her dietary restrictions. Often they would tell her that she should not consume a particular item when, in fact, her dietary regimen would allow it. Eventually, the Plaintiff stopped attending office parties because she grew tired of constantly having to explain to others the contours of the dietary restrictions that had been imposed by her diabetic condition.

When the Plaintiff returned to the billing department, from her pregnancy leave, much had changed. Sometime during the course of the Plaintiff's absence, Blue Cross implemented new auditing procedures for its membership service specialists.1 During an audit, the employee's processing, and formal documentation of a customer's inquiry, would be reviewed for errors that would materially affect the customer's account. Gorman, who worked as a technical specialist, and who performed some of the audits, explained how the monthly audits were performed:

The clerk would just pull [15] random pieces and copy them and give them to us. So, for example, she'd probably pull * * * five correspondence[s] and five group billings and five applications.

Gorman Depo. at 24.

The 15 audited documents were taken from periodic samples of a month's worth of work, in which a clerk would ordinarily process 70 items per day.

The auditors would look for both procedural and substantive errors. Inaccuracies, such as misspellings of customers' names, incorrect phone numbers, and erroneous calculations, were each marked as errors in the audit. Procedural flaws, such as the failure to microfilm a document after its completion, were also deemed to be an error. The error rate...

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