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Mears v. Flint Hills Resources, LLP

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

February 23, 2017

Beverly Mears, Plaintiff,
Flint Hills Resources, LLP, et al., Defendants.

          Eric D. Satre, Satre Law Firm, St. Paul, Minnesota, for Plaintiff.

          Colton D. Long, Cynthia A. Bremer, Stephanie J. Willing, Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, PC, Minneapolis, Minnesota, for Defendants.


          RICHARD H. KYLE United States District Judge


         Plaintiff Beverly Mears commenced this action after her employers, Defendants Flint Hills Resources, LLP and Flint Hills Resources Pine Bend, LLC (collectively “FHR”), demoted her. She alleges the demotion was discriminatory and retaliatory, in violation of the Minnesota Human Rights Act (“MHRA”), Minnesota Statutes section 363A.01 et seq. Presently before the Court is FHR's Motion for Summary Judgment. For the reasons that follow, the Court will grant the Motion.


         The following facts are presented in a light most favorable to Mears. FHR is an oil refinery in Rosemount, Minnesota. (Sheck Decl. ¶ 2.) Mears has worked there as a union employee in various roles since 1998. In 2012, she was working in a maintenance position when she took disability leave-she is deaf in her left ear, and a bacterial infection resulted in severe nerve damage in her legs, making it difficult for her to stand and walk. (Mears Dep. 108, 112-13.) She was cleared to return to work on November 7, 2013, when the events at issue began. (Id. Ex. 19.)

         At the time, FHR had an opening for a Process Lead (“PL”) in its alkylation unit (referred to by the parties as the “alky unit”), one of several units at FHR.[1] (Id. Ex. 16.) The PL monitors the unit for optimal performance from a Central Control Room using the “alky board.” (Sheck Decl. ¶ 5.) When adjustments in the unit's temperatures, pressures, and flow rates are required, it is the PL's responsibility to identify the appropriate adjustments and implement them using the alky board, instruct outside field operators to make adjustments manually, or both. (Id.) “A PL has a very high level of responsibility to maintain the proper balance and quality of process. A PL's failure to perform the position could result in a fire, explosion, or release of product into the environment.” (Id.)

         FHR's posting for PL of the alky unit listed several job requirements, including “[t]echnical knowledge of process operations, ” “[q]ualif[ifcation] on associated area in reasonable amount of time (this will require training on both the outside equipment and inside console), ” “teamwork abilities, ” “communication skills, ” and the ability to “adapt[] to change.” (Mears Dep. Ex. 16.) It also announced that FHR would offer the position to the most senior union member who placed a bid regardless of qualifications. (Id.) Mears bid and, because she was the most senior union member to do so, FHR offered her the job. She accepted on October 30, 2013, and her training began on November 11. (Id. Ex. 20.) This was the only union position Mears's disabilities would allow her to perform. (Id 104.)

         On her first day, Mears disclosed her disabilities to her supervisor, Senior Process Engineer Dave Sheck. (Id 112.) She also received several documents related to her training and employment. Among them was a “[PL] Job Description.” (Id. 104.) It provided, in pertinent part:

• 8 to 10 hours sitting with flexibility to move around; must be immediately available by radio.
• During emergency situations may be necessary to work continuously adjusting parameters (temperature, pressure, flow) on control screen with use of computer mouse until the situation is resolved.
• Initial training does require walk through of physical equipment in an outside environment on concrete in order to understand the location of equipment and process flow through the equipment.

(Id. Ex. 17.) It further provided that the PL must monitor “eight screens for a full shift.” (Id.) Mears reviewed these requirements and decided to move forward with her training. (Id. 104.)

         The same day, Mears and Sheck reviewed a five-page document entitled “Refining Skills Training Kick Off Form.” (Id 122, Ex. 25.) It listed Sheck as Mears's supervisor and indicated she would be trained by the alky unit PLs. The form also provided that the default “Planned Training End Date” was one year after training began but the “actual [end] date may be sooner or later.” (Id Ex. 25.) Indeed, Sheck noted on the form that July 11, 2014, eight months later, was Mears's expected end date for training. (Id.) He testified in his deposition that, although the alky board was “one of the less complicated consoles, ” he did not actually expect Mears to complete her training in eight months (Sheck Dep. 12, 22).

         The form detailed a six-part training process: the first four components involved the study of voluminous training materials and completion of intermittent competency tests. (See Mears Dep. 130, Ex. 25.) The final two components were “Skills Demonstration” and “Board Review.” (Id.) Skills Demonstration was a “field confirmation with the Trainer . . . that the trainee understands the tasks to be demonstrated and the expected standards of performance. The Trainee must complete 100% of the tasks correctly to pass.” (Id.) Board Review, the final step in the process, was “an open discussion with the candidate, senior employees, and supervision to ensure the candidate has the knowledge, critical thinking, job skills and confidence needed, to safely and accurately perform [her] responsibilities in the position.” (Id.)

         Finally, the form specified “Trainee Expectations & Responsibilities, ” including a directive to “[f]ocus on one task at a time.” (Id.) It provided:

FHR[] does not require you to become qualified by a certain date . . . The amount of time it takes to qualify varies from individual to individual, because we all learn at different paces. Most individuals will qualify within a year. But again, this is not a race and qualifying time varies . . . If you are having difficulty learning or grasping concepts, you, ...

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