McConnell v. State Farm Mut. Ins. Co.

Decision Date23 August 1999
Docket NumberNo. CIV. 97-3086(WHW).,CIV. 97-3086(WHW).
Citation61 F.Supp.2d 356
PartiesLaura McCONNELL, Plaintiff, v. STATE FARM MUTUAL INSURANCE COMPANY, Defendant.
CourtU.S. District Court — District of New Jersey

Shane C. DeLeon, Law Offices of Edward P. Azar, Newfoundland, NJ, for Plaintiff Laura McConnell.

Francis X. Dee, David A. Cohen, Carpenter, Bennett & Morrissey, Newark, NJ for Defendant State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co.

OPINION

WALLS, District Judge.

This matter is before the Court on the summary judgment motion of defendant State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company ("State Farm") to dismiss the complaint and the cross-motion of plaintiff Laura McConnell to compel discovery. Pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 78, the Court decides these motions without oral argument. State Farm's motion is granted; McConnell's cross-motion is denied.

FACTS

Plaintiff McConnell, employed by defendant State Farm from November 4, 1985 until January 26, 1996 when she was discharged, held various positions during her tenure. Plaintiff alleges that in 1995 she became pregnant and suffered medical complications as a result of her condition. She took a leave of absence because of these complications on July 31, 1995. By letter dated October 12, 1995, State Farm's Operations Superintendent — Metro Division advised plaintiff that her 125 days of paid sick leave would expire on January 4, 1996 and that on that date, she would be placed in a non-paid medical leave status until January 26, 1996. She was also advised that her employment would be terminated on January 26, 1996 if she was not able to return to work on that date. Plaintiff gave birth to a child on December 23, 1995. Her paid sick leave was terminated on January 4, 1996 and she was discharged from her employment on January 26, 1996. On April 15, 1997, plaintiff brought this action in New Jersey Superior Court, Passaic County, for wrongful discharge in violation of the New Jersey Family Leave Act (the "Leave Act"), N.J.S.A. 34:11 B-1, et seq., the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination ("NJLAD"), N.J.S.A. 10:5-1. Plaintiff argues that she was entitled to a leave from employment under the Leave Act because of the birth of her child and that she was discriminated against because of her pregnancy or family status. Plaintiff claims that as a result of her discharge, she suffered "substantial personal injuries, including emotional distress" as well as financial losses. In addition, she seeks punitive damages.

On June 13, 1997, State Farm removed the action to this Court on the basis of diversity jurisdiction. State Farm is an Illinois corporation with its principal place of business in Illinois. Plaintiff is a New Jersey resident. State Farm has plead, upon information and belief, that the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000. This Court exercises diversity jurisdiction over this action pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332.

To advance its present motion, defendant State Farm argues that plaintiff was not entitled to leave under the Leave Act because she had not worked at least 1,000 base hours during the twelve months preceding the birth of her child. The defendant contends that McConnell's NJLAD claim fails because she has not provided evidence that she was handicapped at the time her employment was terminated, that State Farm applied its leave policy in a discriminatory fashion, or that she was discriminated against because of her alleged medical disability or on any other basis. State Farm also asserts that an employer is not required to extend an employee's leave to accommodate her medical condition. It maintains that plaintiff has failed to state a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress because she has not demonstrated that the alleged conduct was extreme and outrageous and she has not shown that she suffered severe emotional distress. Finally, defendant argues that even if the underlying substantive claims in this action are not dismissed, punitive damages are not appropriate under either NJLAD or the Leave Act because there is no evidence that its alleged conduct was exceptionally egregious.

Plaintiff has cross-moved to compel discovery. She claims that State Farm has not responded to her second document request. She seeks an order compelling State Farm to produce the requested documents. State Farm responds that although it objected to the production of certain requested documents, it has provided McConnell with approximately eight-hundred pages of documents identified in its responses to McConnell's first and second document requests.

DISCUSSION
A. Summary Judgment Standard

Summary judgment is appropriate where the moving party establishes that "there is no genuine issue of fact and that [it] is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). A party against whom a claim has been asserted "may, at any time, move with or without supporting affidavits for a summary judgment in the party's favor as to all or any part thereof." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(b). A factual dispute between the parties will not defeat a motion for summary judgment unless it is both genuine and material. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-48, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). A factual dispute is genuine if a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-movant and it is material if, under the substantive law, it would affect the outcome of the suit. See Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505. The moving party must show that if the evidentiary material of record were reduced to admissible evidence in court, it would be insufficient to permit the non-moving party to carry its burden of proof. See Celotex v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 318, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986).

Once the moving party has carried its burden under Rule 56, "its opponent must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts in question." Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 106 S.Ct. 1348, 89 L.Ed.2d 538 (1986). The opposing party must set forth specific facts showing a genuine issue for trial and may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials of its pleadings. See Sound Ship Building Corp. v. Bethlehem Steel Co., 533 F.2d 96, 99 (3d Cir.1976), cert. denied, 429 U.S. 860, 97 S.Ct. 161, 50 L.Ed.2d 137 (1976). At the summary judgment stage the court's function is not to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter, but rather to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial. See Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249, 106 S.Ct. 2505. In doing so, the court must construe the facts and inferences in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. See Wahl v. Rexnord, Inc. 624 F.2d 1169, 1181 (3d Cir.1980).

B. Plaintiff's Claim Under the Leave Act

State Farm maintains that plaintiff's claim under the Leave Act should be dismissed because she was not entitled to leave. State Farm asserts that the Leave Act does not provide family leave due to the employee's own health condition. Rather, the Act allows leave from employment to an employee to provide care to a family member. Further, State Farm avers that plaintiff was not entitled to leave because she had not worked the requisite number of base hours to qualify for the Leave Act. The defendant states that in order to qualify for leave, an employee must have worked at least 1,000 hours during the previous 12 month period. Because plaintiff only worked 786.25 base hours during the twelve months before her discharge and only 951.25 base hours during the twelve months preceding the birth of her child, she was not entitled to a leave of absence under the Act. A certification by Brian Heath, the Manager of Human Resources at State Farm's Northeastern Region Office, has been offered together with copies of payroll records of plaintiff as well as plaintiff's individual detail report as a record of all the hours plaintiff was absent in 1995. According to these records plaintiff worked 37.5 base hours per week, and if she had worked those hours for 52 weeks in the year 1995, she would have worked a total of 1,950 base hours. However, because plaintiff was absent for 998.75 hours between January, 1995 and December 23, 1995, she only actually worked a total of 951.25 base hours in the twelve months preceding the birth of her child.

Plaintiff argues that she informed State Farm in March, 1995 and again in October, 1995 that she intended to take leave pursuant to the Leave Act following the birth of her child in December, 1995. She contends that her eligibility for that leave should have been calculated as of the date of her original request. She maintains that because she had worked more than 1,000 hours during the twelve months preceding either March, 1995 or October, 1995, she was entitled to leave under the Leave Act after her child's birth in December, 1995. Plaintiff also asserts that even if her eligibility for the Leave Act were determined from the date of her child's birth, she had worked more than 1,000 hours during the twelve months preceding that date because her paid sick leave should be included in the calculation. Plaintiff also disputes State Farm's calculation of her base hours based on its payroll records and the number of hours she was absent.

Family leave is defined by the Leave Act as:

leave from employment so that the employee may provide care made necessary by reason of:

(1) the birth of a child of the employee;

(2) the placement of a child with the employee in connection with adoption of such child by the employee; or

(3) the serious health condition of a family member of the employee.

N.J.S.A. 34:11B-3(i). Under the Leave Act,

[a]n employee of an employer in this State [New Jersey] subject to the provisions of this act shall be entitled to a family leave of 12 weeks in any 24 month period upon advance notice to the employer....

a. In the case of a family member who has a serious health condition, the leave may be taken intermittently when medically...

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