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Arens et al. v. Hormel Food Corp.: US District Court : EMPLOYMENT - Tu-Sa work schedule for medical restrictions not ADA adverse employment action

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
DISTRICT OF MINNESOTA
Civil No. 06-4701(DSD/JJG)
Gregory L. Arens, Thomas E.
Clements, Charles A. Crosby,
Michael D. McCabe, James E.
Retterath and John R. Van Denover,
Plaintiffs,
v. ORDER
Hormel Foods Corporation,
Defendant.
Donaldson V. Lawhead, Esq., 506 West Oakland Avenue,
Austin, MN 55912, counsel for plaintiffs.
Thomas L. Nuss, Esq., Hormel Foods Corporation, 1 Hormel
Place, Austin, MN 55912, counsel for defendant.
This matter is before the court on defendants motion for
summary judgment. Based on a review of the file, record and
proceedings herein, and for the reasons stated, defendants motion
is granted.
BACKGROUND
This dispute arises out of defendant Hormel Foods
Corporations (Hormel) placement of plaintiffs on a Tuesday
through Saturday work schedule. Plaintiffs are six current or
former mechanics in Hormels production facility in Austin,
Minnesota, all of whom worked for Hormel for over twenty years
1 Two of the plaintiffs worked a Tuesday to Saturday schedule
for a brief period in October 2002. (See Haynes Decl. Ex. C.)
2 The medical restrictions that these plaintiffs were working
under in April 2004 arose on the following dates: Arens in 2001 or
2002, (Arens Dep. at 42); Clements in May 2002, (Clements Dep. at
29); Crosby in 2002, (Crosby Dep. at 17-19); Retterath in February
2002, (Retterath Dep. at 20); VanDenover in July 2003, (VanDenover
Dep. at 29).
2
almost exclusively on a Monday through Friday schedule with
occasional weekend overtime.1 Plaintiffs all received workers
compensation benefits at various times throughout their careers at
Hormel. (Arens Dep. Ex. 7; Clements Dep. Ex. 4; Crosby Dep. Ex. 3;
McCabe Dep. Ex. 1; Retterath Dep. Ex. 6; VanDenover Dep. Ex. 4.)
On April 14, 2004, Hormels superintendent of plant
engineering, Mike Nibaur (Nibaur), met with plaintiffs Gregory
Arens (Arens), Thomas Clements (Clements), Charles Crosby
(Crosby), James Retterath (Retterath) and John VanDenover
(VanDenover) to inform them that they would begin working a
Tuesday to Saturday schedule. Nibaur told these plaintiffs that
the schedule change was a result of their medical work
restrictions, which limited them to forty-hour workweeks.2 Nibaur
also mentioned that if plaintiffs medical restrictions were
removed they could return to a Monday through Friday schedule. At
a second meeting, Hormels Human Resources Manager, Scott Haynes
(Haynes), reiterated Nibaurs statement.
Arens, Clements, Retterath and VanDenover began working the
Tuesday to Saturday schedule on May 3, 2004. Instead of working
3 Arens returned to a Monday through Friday schedule on August
16, 2004, and the other two returned to that schedule in July 2005.
Arens and VanDenover retired in September 2005, and Clements
retired in September 2007.
3
that schedule, Crosby took a leave of absence beginning on April
15, 2004, and ended his employment with Hormel on September 30,
2004. Retterath worked the Tuesday to Saturday schedule until his
retirement on February 25, 2005. Arens, Clements and VanDenover
eventually returned to a Monday through Friday schedule despite
retaining their medical restrictions, and retired from Hormel
thereafter.3
Plaintiff Michael McCabe (McCabe) acquired a forty-hour
workweek restriction in March 2004 because of a shoulder injury.
McCabe had surgery on the shoulder and returned to work in mid-July
under the same restriction. As a result, McCabe worked the Tuesday
through Saturday schedule from September 20, 2004, until the
restriction was removed on November 15, 2004. (Haynes Decl. 6;
McCabe Dep. at 20-21.) McCabe presently works a Monday through
Friday schedule.
Arens, Clements, Crosby and Retterath (EEOC plaintiffs)
filed a charge of discrimination against Hormel with the Equal
Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) on June 30, 2004, and
obtained a right to sue letter on September 16, 2006. The EEOC
plaintiffs brought this action on November 30, 2006, along with
McCabe and VanDenover. The amended complaint asserts claims for
4
violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and
Minnesota workers compensation law. Hormel now moves for summary
judgment.
DISCUSSION
I. Summary Judgment Standard
Rule 56(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides
that summary judgment is appropriate if the pleadings,
depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file,
together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine
issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled
to a judgment as a matter of law. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett,
477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). A fact is material only when its
resolution affects the outcome of the case. Anderson v. Liberty
Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A dispute is genuine if the
evidence is such that it could cause a reasonable jury to return a
verdict for either party. See id. at 252.
On a motion for summary judgment, all evidence and inferences
are viewed in a light most favorable to the nonmoving party. See
id. at 255. The nonmoving party, however, may not rest upon mere
denials or allegations in the pleadings but must set forth specific
facts sufficient to raise a genuine issue for trial. See Celotex,
477 U.S. at 324. Moreover, if a plaintiff cannot support each
essential element of his claim, summary judgment must be granted
4 McCabe and VanDenover did not file a charge of
discrimination with the EEOC and are thus precluded from pursuing
an ADA claim here. See McKenzie v. Lunds, Inc., 63 F. Supp. 2d
986, 1000 (D. Minn. 1999).
5
because a complete failure of proof regarding an essential element
necessarily renders all other facts immaterial. Id. at 322-23.
II. Americans with Disabilities Act
The EEOC plaintiffs argue that Hormel discriminated against
them in violation of the ADA by placing them on the Tuesday to
Saturday schedule.4 The ADA prohibits an employer from
discriminating against a qualified individual with a disability
because of the disability of such individual. 42 U.S.C.
12112(a). Absent direct evidence of discrimination, the familiar
McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework applies to ADA claims.
Libel v. Adventure Lands of Am., Inc., 482 F.3d 1028, 1034 (8th
Cir. 2007) (citing McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792,
802-04 (1973)). Under that framework, a plaintiff must first
establish a prima facie case of disability discrimination. Id. A
prima facie case requires a plaintiff to show that (1) he was
disabled, (2) he was qualified to perform the essential functions
of the job, with or without a reasonable accommodation, and (3) he
suffered an adverse employment action. Id.
Hormel contends that the EEOC plaintiffs were not disabled and
suffered no adverse employment action. Assuming the EEOC
plaintiffs were disabled, the court determines that they did not
6
suffer an adverse employment action. Action short of discharge may
constitute an adverse employment action. Montandon v. Farmland
Indus., Inc., 116 F.3d 355, 359 (8th Cir. 1997) (citation omitted).
An employment action, however, is not adverse merely because it
makes an employee unhappy. Buboltz v. Residential Advantages,
Inc., 523 F.3d 864, 868 (8th Cir. 2008) (quotation omitted).
Rather, an employee suffers an adverse employment action when
there is a tangible change in duties or working conditions
constituting a material employment disadvantage. Baucom v.
Holiday Cos., 428 F.3d 764, 767 (8th Cir. 2005) (quotation
omitted). Termination, cuts in pay or benefits, and changes that
affect an employees future career prospects are significant enough
to meet the standard, as would circumstances amounting to a
constructive discharge. Id. (quotation omitted). A job
reassignment involving no corresponding reduction in salary,
benefits, or prestige, and minor changes in duties or working
conditions, even unpalatable or unwelcome ones, are not adverse
employment actions. Buboltz, 523 F.3d at 868 (citations omitted).
In this case, the schedule change neither reduced the EEOC
plaintiffs salaries or benefits nor materially changed or
diminished their job responsibilities. Nevertheless, the EEOC
plaintiffs claim that working a Tuesday to Saturday schedule
constitutes a material employment disadvantage because it is much
less desirable than a Monday to Friday schedule. Before acquiring
7
medical work restrictions, however, the EEOC plaintiffs - like
other Hormel mechanics - occasionally worked overtime on weekends.
Indeed, at the time of the schedule change the other mechanics in
plaintiffs area of Hormels production facility regularly worked
Saturdays in addition to their Monday through Friday schedules.
(Nuss Decl. Ex. 2.) Therefore, although the EEOC plaintiffs were
not eligible for overtime pay due to their forty-hour work
limitations, requiring them to work on Saturdays is not a reduction
in prestige sufficient to establish a material employment
disadvantage. Accordingly, the EEOC plaintiffs have not stated a
prima facie case of disability discrimination, and the court grants
Hormels motion for summary judgment on this claim.
III. Workers Compensation Claims
All plaintiffs assert claims under Minnesota Statutes
176.82, which prohibits [a]ny person [from] discharging or
threatening to discharge an employee for seeking workers
compensation benefits or in any manner intentionally obstructing an
employee seeking workers compensation benefits. Minn. Stat.
176.82, subdiv. 1. This statute prohibits two specific types of
conduct: retaliatory discharges (or threatened discharges) and
obstructions of workers compensation benefits. Flaherty v.
Lindsay, 467 N.W.2d 30, 32 (Minn. 1991).
8
A. Threat to Discharge
The McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework applies to
retaliation claims under 176.82. Benson v. Nw. Airlines, Inc.,
561 N.W.2d 530, 539 (Minn. Ct. App. 1997). To establish a prima
facie case of retaliation, plaintiffs must show that (1) they
engaged in statutorily protected activity, (2) they suffered an
adverse employment action, and (3) a causal connection existed
between the two events. Ciszewski v. Engd Polymers Corp., 179 F.
Supp. 2d 1072, 1092 (D. Minn. 2001) (citing Kunferman v. Ford Motor
Co., 112 F.3d 962, 965 (8th Cir. 1997); Dietrich v. Can. Pac. Ltd.,
536 N.W.2d 319, 327 (Minn. 1995)).
Plaintiffs argue that their schedule change, combined with the
statements by Nibaur and Haynes informing them that absent their
medical restrictions they could return to a Monday through Friday
schedule, constituted threats to discharge them for seeking
workers compensation benefits. As noted above, however,
plaintiffs schedule change was not an adverse employment action.
Moreover, plaintiffs received workers compensation benefits from
Hormel on several occasions throughout their careers without
recrimination, and no facts suggest a causal nexus between the
schedule change and any application for benefits. Therefore,
plaintiffs cannot establish a prima facie case of retaliation based
upon their schedule change and the accompanying comments made by
Nibaur and Haynes.
5 The collective bargaining agreement governing plaintiffs
employment provided that three strikes within a twelve-month
period was grounds for termination. (Lawhead Aff. Ex. A.)
9
Plaintiffs also attempt to support their prima facie case by
pointing to instances in which Clements received allegedly wrongful
strikes,5 was treated poorly and was required to disregard his
medical restrictions after he began receiving benefits. In
addition, plaintiffs refer to instances in which Retterath was
assigned tasks outside the scope of his medical restrictions and
denied a vacation after receiving benefits. Clements and
Retterath, however, have not presented facts indicating that their
applications for or receipt of workers compensation benefits
caused these alleged adverse employment actions. Accordingly, the
court grants Hormels motion for summary judgment on plaintiffs
retaliation claim.
B. Intentional Obstruction
A claim for intentional obstruction of benefits requires
plaintiffs to show that Hormel deliberately obstructed or hindered
the benefits due to them in a manner that is outrageous and
extreme. Bergeson v. U.S. Fid. & Guar. Co., 414 N.W.2d 724, 727
(Minn. 1987). Relief under the statute for intentional obstruction
is available only upon some actual denial or disruption in the
receipt of benefits. Flaherty, 467 N.W.2d at 32; see also Summers
v. R&D Agency, Inc., 593 N.W.2d 241, 244 (Minn. Ct. App. 1999).
10
Plaintiffs claim that the schedule change obstructed their
right to work within their medical restrictions. Hormel, however,
did not require plaintiffs to work more than forty hours a week,
and plaintiffs do not allege that their workers compensation
benefits were ever denied or disrupted. Accordingly, the court
grants Hormels motion for summary judgment on this claim.
CONCLUSION
Based on the above, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that Hormels motion
for summary judgment [Doc. No. 51] is granted.
LET JUDGMENT BE ENTERED ACCORDINGLY
Dated: March 6, 2009
s/David S. Doty
David S. Doty, Judge
United States District Court
 

 
 
 

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