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Hanson v. Mental Health Resources

United States District Court, Eighth Circuit

May 31, 2013

AMBER HANSON, Plaintiff,

Kevin M. Beck, Kelly & Lemmons, PA, Counsel for Plaintiff.

Joseph G. Schmitt and Katie M. Connolly, Nilan Johnson Lewis PA, Counsel for Defendant.


MICHAEL J. DAVIS, Chief District Judge.


This matter is before the Court on Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment. [Docket No. 13] The Court heard oral argument is on May 3, 2013. For the reasons that follow, the Court grants Defendant's motion.


A. Factual Background

1. The Parties

Defendant Mental Health Resources, Inc. ("MHR") is a private non-profit corporation that provides services to people with severe and persistent mental illness in order to increase their quality of life by minimizing arrests, homelessness, and unnecessary hospitalizations. (Connolly Aff., Ex. 1, Calmbacher Dep. 7-8.) It offers services such as counseling and psychotherapy, case management, housing and vocational support, and skills training. (Berg Aff. ¶ 2.) MHR employs approximately 170 employees, the vast majority of whom are women. (Calmbacher Dep. 8, 33.)

MHR has two ERISA-governed employee welfare plans: a pension plan (Mental Health Resources Profit Sharing Plan) and a plan encompassing employer-sponsored health benefits. (Connolly Aff., Ex. 2, Berg Dep. 15.)

Plaintiff Amber Hanson began working for MHR as a case manager on September 13, 2010. (Connolly Aff., Ex. 3, Hanson Dep. 7.) Her job responsibilities included assisting mentally ill and chemically dependent adults access services in the community, including medical and psychiatric treatment providers, helping clients with coping skills, and providing crisis intervention when needed. (Id.) MHR admits that her performance as a case manager was satisfactory, apart from the particular incident that led to her termination. (See, e.g., Connolly Aff., Ex. 6, Tisdle Dep. 47.)

2. Hanson's Insurance Forms

At the beginning of Hanson's employment, she completed standard employment forms relating to benefits, including forms related to insurance coverage offered under MHR's ERISA-governed health benefits plan. (Hanson Dep. 18.) She received these forms as part of her orientation. (Id. 26.) During orientation, conducted by Human Resources Assistant Pha Vang, Hanson asked Vang if domestic partners could be covered under MHR's benefits policy. (Id. 31.) Vang said "yes, " and told Hanson that she needed to complete the domestic partnership affidavit, which Vang provided. (Id.) Vang did not give Hanson any instruction regarding how to fill out her enrollment forms in light of Hanson's request for the domestic partnership affidavit; nor did Vang explain the domestic partnership affidavit or the criteria for qualifying for domestic partnership coverage. (Hanson Dep. 34; Connolly Aff., Ex. 10, Vang Dep. 17-18.) Vang did not provide instruction because the domestic partnership affidavit clearly states the required qualifying information. (Vang Dep. 17-18.) The affidavit and MHR's domestic partnership policy has existed for at least ten years, and the qualifying information has never changed. (Berg Aff. ¶ 4.) A key qualification for MHR's domestic partnership coverage is that the applicant is in a same-sex relationship. (Id.; Berg Dep. 78.)

After taking the documents from Vang, Hanson completed the enrollment forms and affidavit. Vang was not with Hanson when Hanson completed her initial enrollment forms. (Vang Dep. 16.) On Hanson's HealthPartners "Medical Enrollment Form, " signed by Hanson on September 20, 2010, Hanson elected to participate in MHR's family Health Savings Account insurance plan. (Connolly Aff., Ex. 11.) She identified two "dependents:" Jacob Mildon, identified by Hanson as her "spouse, " and M.M., identified as her son. (Connolly Aff., Ex. 11; Hanson Dep. 19.) The form includes a box where Hanson was supposed to check married or single, but she did not check either. (Connolly Aff., Ex. 11; Hanson Dep. 20.) At the time that Hanson completed the medical insurance enrollment form, she was not legally married to Jacob Mildon, but she claims that she used the term "spouse, " because she uses that term interchangeably with the term "partner." (Hanson Dep. 20-21, 24-25.) She does not believe, however, that Jacob Mildon is her spouse "in the eyes of the law." (Id. 20.) At the bottom of the form, Hanson signed, agreeing "I hereby declare all answers to be true and complies [sic] with the best of my knowledge." (Connolly Aff., Ex. 11.)

Also on September 20, 2010, Hanson completed a HealthPartners "Dental Enrollment Form." (Hanson Dep. 22; Connolly Aff., Ex. 12.) She listed both Jacob Mildon and M.M. as her dependents and identified Jacob Mildon as her "spouse." (Hanson Dep. 22-23; Connolly Aff., Ex. 12.) However, she checked the "single" box. (Connolly Aff., Ex. 12.)

On September 14, 2010, Hanson completed a life/disability insurance form and identified Jacob Mildon as her beneficiary and her "partner." (Hanson Dep. 23-24.)

Additionally, Hanson signed the MHR domestic partnership affidavit, affirming that the affiants ” Hanson and Jacob Mildon ” were "Same sex adults." (Connolly Aff., Ex. 13.) Both Hanson, a female, and Jacob Mildon, a male, signed the document and had their signatures notarized on October 11, 2010. (Id.) Hanson admits that, at the time she and Jacob Mildon signed the document and submitted it to MHR, they were not same-sex adults. (Connolly Aff., Exs. 14-15.)

Hanson submitted her domestic partnership affidavit and her enrollment forms to Vang on approximately October 13, 2010. (Hanson Dep. 38-39.) Vang faxed the medical and dental enrollment forms along with the domestic partnership affidavit and a cover letter to MHR's then-insurer, HealthPartners. (Vang Dep. 20-22; Connolly Aff., Ex. 13.) After Vang faxed the documents, she put a copy of the faxed documents into a separate fax file that she maintained at that time. (Vang Dep. 11-12.) She also placed a copy of the medical and dental enrollment forms in Hanson's personal health information file, but accidentally forgot to place a copy of the domestic partnership affidavit in that same file. (Id. 53-54.)

Vang did not review the enrollment forms or the domestic partnership affidavit. (Vang Dep. 21-22.) She did not check the documents for content or consistency. (Id. 25-26.) She claims that she was overseeing many employees and did not have the capacity to review each enrollment in detail. (Id. 26.) HealthPartners issued coverage to Hanson, Jacob Mildon, and M.M. without any follow-up requests to MHR. (Id. 23, 25.)

In November 2010, MHR changed insurance carriers from HealthPartners to Medica. (Hanson Dep. 43; Connolly Aff., Ex. 16.) Hanson was required to complete a new enrollment form and, on that form, she identified Jacob Mildon as one of her dependents, as male, and as her domestic partner. (Hanson Dep. 44; Connolly Aff., Ex. 16.) She did not check the box for "single" or for "married" in the "Marital Status" section of the form. (Id.)

In December 2010, Hanson decided to drop all of her dependents from her dental benefits. (Hanson Dep. 45-46; Connolly Aff., Ex. 17.) To do so, she submitted a form on which she identified Jacob Mildon as her domestic partner. (Id.)

3. Hanson's Leave Request

In October or November 2011, Hanson began telling her co-workers that she was pregnant. (Hanson Dep. 79.) On December 1, 2011, she received Family and Medical Leave Act ("FMLA") paperwork that she had requested from Vang in anticipation of the birth of her child in March 2012. (Id. 81-82; Connolly Aff., Ex. 19.) The paperwork stated that she was eligible for FMLA leave. (Hanson Dep. 82; Connolly Aff., Ex. 19.)

Hanson submitted the required documentation from her physician and, on January 10, 2012, received notification that her leave request was approved for twelve weeks, although she only requested eight weeks. (Connolly Aff., Ex. 20; Hanson Dep. 86-88.)

4. MHR Discovers the Discrepancies in Hanson's Benefits Forms

In November 2011, shortly before Thanksgiving, Hanson approached MHR's Finance Director, Robert Berg, to ask about benefits and what insurance plan to choose in light of her pregnancy and the anticipated birth of her second child in March 2012. (Hanson Dep. 49, 52-53.) Vang was on maternity leave at the time, which is why Hanson approached Berg. (Id.) During the conversation, Hanson mentioned that she and Jacob Mildon were not married and that she carried him as a dependent on her MHR insurance. (Id. 53.) Berg told Hanson that MHR does not provide benefits to unmarried opposite-sex partners and that she would have to remove him from the policy. (Id.) Hanson thinks that she told Berg that she had completed the domestic partnership affidavit, and that Berg responded by telling her that Vang should never have permitted Hanson to have an opposite-sex partner on the policy. (Id. 53-54.) Hanson removed Jacob Mildon from her MHR insurance, but not directly after the conversation with Berg. (Id. 77.)

After the conversation, Berg was concerned about how Hanson had enrolled her opposite-sex domestic partner for MHR's benefits since MHR had a longstanding policy of only permitting married spouses and, because marriage was not an option for them, same-sex domestic partners to receive benefits. (Berg Dep. 78, 98.) He looked through Hanson's personnel file and her personal health information file. (Id. 82.) He also placed a blank copy of the domestic partnership affidavit, which lists the criteria for receiving domestic partner benefits, including that the affiants be in a same-sex relationship, in Hanson's mailbox. (Id. 92.)

On November 18, 2011, shortly after Hanson's conversation with Berg, Hanson received an email from Berg. (Hanson Dep. 58; Connolly Aff., Ex. 18.) The email summarized their conversation and reiterated that domestic partner benefits only applied to same-sex adults, having Hanson's opposite-sex domestic partner on her health insurance violated MHR policy, and she needed to remove him by January 1, 2012. (Connolly Aff., Ex. 18.) The email stated that Hanson had told him that she had completed the domestic partnership form but that no such form had ...

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