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Grantz v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co.

September 2, 2009

TROY GRANTZ, PLAINTIFF,
v.
STATE FARM MUTUAL AUTOMOBILE INSURANCE COMPANY, AND DOES 1 THROUGH 100, INCLUSIVE, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Andrew J. Guilford United States District Judge

ORDER GRANTING MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

Defendant State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company ("Defendant" or "State Farm") has filed a motion for summary judgment ("Motion"). After considering all papers and arguments submitted, the Court GRANTS the Motion.

BACKGROUND

This is a disability discrimination action brought by Plaintiff Troy Grantz ("Plaintiff") against his former employer, State Farm. The relevant facts extend over a long time period, and the summary that follows is not intended to include all of the relevant facts. State Farm is a mutual insurance company that sells, among other things, automobile insurance. (Ferrara Decl. ¶ 3.) In 1992, Plaintiff began working for State Farm as a claim representative. (Grantz Decl. ¶ 2; Dunn Decl. ¶¶ 7, 9.) Claim representatives are responsible for processing claims submitted by State Farm policyholders. (Ferrara Decl. ¶ 8.) For example, if a policyholder is involved in a car accident, a claim representative would speak with the policyholder about the claim, take statements from the policyholder and other witnesses, coordinate the process of getting an estimate for the cost of repairs, and coordinate repairs and payment. (Ferrara Decl. ¶ 8.)

Before 1999, State Farm's claim representatives in California generally worked "in the field." Representatives were usually assigned their own specific claims to process from start to finish, and would often travel outside of State Farm's offices to view damaged vehicles, visit accident sites, or meet with representatives at repair shops. (Ferrara Decl. ¶ 9.) In 1999, State Farm established an Auto Claims Central ("ACC") operation in California. Representatives working at the ACC worked primarily in a call-center environment, processing claims by telephone and keeping notes in a computer database. (Ferrara Decl. ¶ 10.) Instead of being assigned specific claims to process from start to finish, representatives in the ACC shared responsibility for processing claims. (Ferrara Decl. ¶ 11.)

In 1992, the same year Plaintiff began working for State Farm, he was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis and irritable bowel disease. (Grantz Decl. ¶ 2.) When treatment failed, Plaintiff was forced to undergo a total colostomy, where the entire colon was removed, and a colostomy bag was attached. Following this surgery, Plaintiff continued to experience complications, including "pouchitis" and "post-op adhesions." (Grantz Decl. ¶ 2.) Plaintiff underwent further surgeries and treatment for the colitis, as well as testicular surgery. (Grantz Decl. ¶ 2.) Plaintiff states that he has undergone over 13 surgeries, has been admitted to the hospital over 100 times, and still endures chronic pain. (Grantz Decl. ¶ 2.) In part because of these physical ailments, Plaintiff asserts, he suffers from depression and has at times suffered from anxiety. (Grantz Decl. ¶ 2.)

Until 1999, Plaintiff worked "in the field" as a claim representative for State Farm. Plaintiff was then transferred to the ACC, and worked there as a claim representative from 1999 until 2003. (Grantz Dep. Vol. 1, 53:11-13; 63:2-4.) Plaintiff asserts that work in the ACC was stressful. Representatives in the ACC were expected to answer a high volume of phone calls, and Plaintiff asserts that their productivity was tracked. (Grantz Decl. ¶¶ 5-7.) Plaintiff states that the stress eventually led him to suffer anxiety and panic attacks. (Grantz Decl. ¶ 8.) After calling State Farm's employee assistance line, Plaintiff was referred to Dr. Phillip Cohen, a psychiatrist. (Grantz Decl. ¶ 8.) Cohen prescribed anti-anxiety and anti-depression medication. Those medications helped for a time, but Plaintiff's symptoms eventually returned and began to escalate. (Grantz Decl. ¶ 8.) In March 2001, Plaintiff asserts that the anxiety and depression became so severe that he suffered a "breakdown" and was voluntarily hospitalized for three days in a hospital psychiatric unit. (Grantz Decl. ¶ 8.) After leaving the facility, Plaintiff continued to consult Cohen and began seeing a psychologist. (Grantz Decl. ¶ 8.) Plaintiff continued to suffer stress and anxiety caused by his job duties at the ACC. (Grantz Decl. ¶ 8.)

In March 2003, Plaintiff's application for a transfer to a field position in Irvine as a claims representative was granted. (Grantz Decl. ¶ 9.) Plaintiff asserts that the field position was much less stressful, and after his transfer, his panic and anxiety attacks subsided and eventually stopped. (Grantz Decl. ¶ 12.) Soon after the transfer, Plaintiff asserts, he was able to stop taking his anti-anxiety medication. (Grantz Decl. ¶ 12.)

In late 2006, State Farm determined that backlogs were developing in its ACC operation. To address the problem, State Farm created a "bridge team" to address the backlogs in spring 2007. (Ferrara Decl. ¶ 14.) The team, consisting of field representatives, would work in the ACC temporarily to "bridge" the staffing needs of the ACC in clearing the backlogs. (Ferrara Decl. ¶ 14.)

In February 2007, Plaintiff had a problem with his colostomy bag that required months of treatment, and on February 8, 2007, Plaintiff began a paid leave of absence. (Grantz Decl. ¶ 13; Dunn Decl. ¶ 13.) In early April 2007, Plaintiff was still on medical leave when he received a call from his supervisor, Bill Riggs ("Riggs"). Riggs advised Plaintiff that he would be transferred to the bridge team. (Grantz Decl. ¶ 13.) Riggs asserts that Plaintiff was chosen for the bridge team assignment because of his prior experience in the ACC, as well as his organization and communication skills. (Riggs Dep. 12:10-13:23, Riggs Decl. ¶ 11.) To Riggs' knowledge, none of the other field representatives in Plaintiff's office had experience working in the ACC. (Riggs Decl. ¶ 11.)

In May 2007, State Farm's Employee Health Services ("EHS") department suggested to Plaintiff that he might be able to work from home while waiting for the issue with his colostomy bag to resolve. (Grantz Dep. Vol. 1, 174:12-175:19.) Plaintiff agreed, and State Farm made arrangements for him to do so, providing a cell phone and laptop computer. (Ferrara Decl. ¶¶ 23, 24; Grantz Dep. Vol. 1, 176:11-177:12; Maxey Dep. 27:12-28:4.) State Farm asserts that when it suggested to Plaintiff that he could work from home, State Farm management believed that Plaintiff would be healed and ready to report to work after only a short time. (Ferrara Decl. ¶¶ 22, 23, 26; Miller Decl. ¶ 9, Ex. A.) Management then learned, State Farm asserts, that Plaintiff would not be able to return to work as quickly as they had expected. (Ferrara Decl. ¶ 26; Miller Decl. ¶ 9, Ex. A.) Plaintiff's work-from-home assignment was then discontinued, and Plaintiff was placed back on paid sick leave. (Ferrara Dep. Exs. 33, 34; Dunn Dep. Ex. 4.) State Farm asserts that Plaintiff's work-from-home assignment was discontinued because of "potential wage and hour and safety concerns." (Ferrara Decl. ¶ 27; Dunn Decl. ¶ 13.)

In August 2007, State Farm management decided that the bridge team members would be permanently assigned to the ACC, instead of temporarily assigned there to clear backlogs, as originally planned. (Ferrara Decl. ¶ 28.) In late August or early September 2007, Plaintiff informed human resources representative John Dunn ("Dunn") that he did not want to work at the ACC, as he found the ACC environment too stressful and preferred working in the field. (Dunn Dep. 52:2-53:3.) State Farm asserts that Plaintiff was not alone in objecting to the transition. Of the eight representatives in Irvine selected for the Bridge Team and later assigned to the ACC, four told State Farm that they did not wish to be transferred to the ACC. (Dunn Dep. 68:3-71:6.)

On October 19, 2007, Plaintiff emailed Dunn and asked to meet with him regarding a matter. (Dunn Decl. ¶ 14.) Three days later, on October 22, 2007, Plaintiff returned to work in the ACC. (Grantz Dep. Vol. 1, 183:19-25; 186:11-25.) On that date, Plaintiff met with Dunn and other representatives, and told them that he did not want to work in the ACC, but wanted to return to the field instead. (Grantz Dep. Vol. 1, 186:11-25; 189:21-104:6; 200:16-202:24.) Plaintiff then went home mid-day, and did not return to work the next day. (Grantz Dep. Vol. 1, 185:-9:186:2.) Instead, on October 23, 2007, Plaintiff went to see Dr. Cohen. A week later, on October 31, 2007, Plaintiff submitted a letter to Cohen, detailing his history of stress and anxiety and asking him to submit a form to State Farm regarding his desire to return to a field position. (See Green Decl. Ex. H; Cohen Dep. 57:1-13, Ex. 33.) Cohen placed Plaintiff back on paid sick leave for six months, from October 23, 2007, until April 25, 2008, when Plaintiff exhausted his paid sick leave. (Miller Decl. ¶ 9; Ex. B.) Two weeks before that leave expired, on April 10, 2008, Plaintiff again wrote to Cohen, asking for a letter recommending that Plaintiff not be required to work at the ACC. (Cohen Dep. Ex. 34-22.) Four days later, on April 14, 2008, Cohen submitted a letter to State Farm, supporting Plaintiff's request to be reassigned to a field position. (Cohen Dep. Ex. 34-21.) The letter stated, among other things, that "[b]eing allowed to return to a less stressful and familiar environment as Mr. Grantz has repeatedly requested would allow him to be a more productive employee with less risk for medical and psychiatric illness." (Dunn Dep. Ex. 5.) In an addendum, the letter stated that Plaintiff was "cleared to return to work 4/21/2008 on a part time basis." (Dunn. Dep. Ex. 5.)

State Farm declined Plaintiff's request to be reassigned to a field position as supported by Dr. Cohen. No field positions were open in Irvine, and State Farm did not accept Plaintiff's contention that he was able to work as a field representative but not in the ACC. (Maxey Dep. 73:8-21; 77:22-78:4; Dorlis Dep. 101:24-103:25.) Plaintiff remained on unpaid leave from April 25, 2008, until July 2008. (Dunn Decl. ¶ 15.) In July 2008, his leave benefits having expired three months earlier, State Farm terminated Plaintiff's employment for "illness benefits expired." (Dunn Decl. ¶ 16.)

Based on these facts and others, Plaintiff has brought seven claims against Defendant State Farm, numbered as follows: (1) failure to accommodate, in violation of California's Fair Employment and Housing Act ("FEHA"); (2) disability discrimination, in violation of the FEHA; (3) retaliation, in violation of the California Family Rights Act ("CFRA"); (4) failure to reinstate to position, in violation of the CFRA; (5) violation of public policy; (6) retaliation, in violation of the federal Family Medical Leave Act ("FMLA"); and (7) failure to reinstate to position, in violation of the FMLA. Defendant now moves for summary judgment of all seven claims.

LEGAL STANDARD

Summary judgment is appropriate only where the record, read in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, indicates that "there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and... the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323-24 (1986). Material facts are those necessary to the proof or defense of a claim, and are determined by reference to substantive law. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A factual issue is genuine "if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Id. at 248. In deciding a motion for summary judgment, "[t]he evidence of the non-movant is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his ...


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