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Hanson v. Northern Pines Mental Health Center, Inc.

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

March 22, 2018

Mary K. Hanson, Plaintiff,
Northern Pines Mental Health Center, Inc., Defendant.

          Daniel E. Warner, Esq., Warner Law Office, counsel for Plaintiff.

          Dean A. LeDoux, Esq., and Neil S. Goldsmith, Esq., Gray Plant Mooty, counsel for Defendant.




         This matter is before the Court on a Motion for Summary Judgment by Defendant Northern Pines Mental Health Center, Inc. (“Defendant” or “Northern Pines”). (Doc. No. 17.) For the reasons stated below, the Court grants in part and denies in part the motion.


         Mary K. Hanson (“Plaintiff” or “Hanson”) was employed at Northern Pines as a Certified Peer Recovery Specialist (“Peer Specialist”) from May 2012 to September 2014. (Doc. No. 21 (“Goldsmith Aff.”) ¶ 2, Ex. B (“Hanson Dep.”) at 39, 72-73, 246.) As a Peer Specialist, Hanson helped clients with mental health issues to identify and meet goals during individualized weekly or bi-weekly sessions. (Id. at 95-97.) In this role, Hanson drove clients around the community to support recovery goals. (Id. at 62-64, 107-11.) Northern Pines also required Hanson, and all Peer Specialists, to document progress notes and other information for these sessions in an electronic health record called Procentive. (Goldsmith Aff. ¶ 2, Ex. D (“Leikvoll Dep.”) at 15-16.) Northern Pines submitted this documentation to the Minnesota Department of Human Services (“DHS”) for reimbursement for Peer Specialist services. (Hanson Dep. at 98-101.)

         Peer Specialists are required to have a history of mental illness because personal experience with mental health recovery allows Peer Specialists to relate to clients. (Hanson Dep. at 52, 56-57; see Leikvoll Dep. at 11.) During Hanson's February 2012 interview for the Peer Specialist position, she discussed her own mental health recovery with Holly Biggins. (Hanson Dep. at 50-53.) Hanson also told Biggins she had a reading disability that made it difficult for her to read for extended periods of time and that could cause motion sickness while reading small print for too long. (Id. at 55, 60-61.) Biggins told Hanson this would not be an issue and that this disability would help her to relate to clients with similar experiences. (Id. at 55-57.) Biggins informed Hanson that she needed a working car and auto insurance for the job because Peer Specialists are required to drive in their position. (Id. at 62.) Biggins discussed electronic documentation in the interview and noted that Hanson would receive support to complete it. (Id. at 58-59.)

         Northern Pines hired Hanson. (Id. at 64-65.) In April 2012, Hanson attended an intensive training program to attain her Peer Specialist certification. (See Id. at 65-66.) The program involved a lot of reading, which Hanson successfully completed by taking frequent breaks. (Id. at 69.) Hanson passed her certification training with “some of the highest scores [the instructor] had ever seen” and a perfect score on the final exam. (Id. at 67-68.) Hanson began working at Northern Pines on May 1, 2012. (Id. at 72-73.) She then completed orientation and received some computer training, although she encountered several issues with the computer provided by Northern Pines. (See Id. at 73-79.) She later used a computer she had obtained from Minnesota State Services for the Blind (“MSSB”) because the computer issued by Northern Pines “never worked.” (Id. at 79, 83, 137.)

         At the relevant times during Hanson's employment at Northern Pines, Peer Specialists worked primarily with Vickie Buck, Teri Gerhardt, and Lynn Jensen. Buck supported Peer Specialists by reviewing documentation in Procentive to ensure it was properly entered for billing purposes. (Doc. No. 30 (“Buck Aff.”) ¶ 2.) Gerhardt supervised the Peer Specialists in her role as Treatment Director. (Doc. No. 27 (“Gerhardt Aff.”) ¶ 2.) Jensen served as Director of Adult Rehabilitative Mental Health Services and was also responsible for the supervision of the Peer Specialists. (Goldsmith Aff. ¶ 2, Ex. C (“Jensen Dep.”) at 9-10, 12-15.) Gerhardt and Jensen reported to Julie Leikvoll, Director of Operations at Northern Pines. (Leikvoll Dep. at 7-9.)

         During Hanson's employment as a Peer Specialist, Northern Pines gave Hanson some accommodations for her vision difficulties and reading disability. (Hanson Dep. at 134-36.) These accommodations included a software program that magnified text, printed copies of materials in large font, and a large computer monitor. (Id. at 135, 137, 174-75; Goldsmith Aff. ¶ 2, Ex. G (“Larson Dep.”) at 40.) Hanson also requested a job coach to assist her with documentation issues, but Northern Pines did not grant her request. (Hanson Dep. at 150-59; see also Doc. No. 39 (“Warner Aff.”) ¶ 11, Ex. I.)

         Hanson performed her role as a Peer Specialist “very well.” (Goldsmith Aff. ¶ 2, Ex. E (“Gerhardt Dep.”) at 40.) Gerhardt described Hanson as “very good with her peers, ” further noting that “[p]eers loved her.” (Id.) Gerhardt also recognized, however, that Hanson “was a lot of work” and failed to “understand and grasp documentation.” (Id.; accord Hanson Dep. at 186-89; Goldsmith Aff. ¶ 2, Ex. H (“Buck Dep.”), Ex. 56.) Hanson made several types of errors, such as missing entries, wrong billing codes, overlapping meeting and travel times, and failing to complete progress notes. (Hanson Dep. at 188-89.) For example, on May 15, 2014, Buck identified nineteen errors Hanson made between January and May 2014. (Buck Aff. ¶ 5, Ex. C.) In addition, as of March 18, 2014, Hanson had failed to make any travel entries for the month. (Buck Aff. ¶ 3, Ex. A.) In July 2014, Hanson entered travel times incorrectly in every progress note. (Doc. No. 27 (“Gerhardt Aff.”) ¶ 12, Ex. H.)

         Procentive documentation errors were not unusual among the Peer Specialists. (See Buck Dep. at 20.) Buck was responsible for reviewing Peer Specialist documentation “to ensure that all of the documentation for all of the work that we provide for our clients is in our software so that it gets billed correctly.” (Id. at 7.) Buck encountered common errors made by Peer Specialists, including inaccurate or missing appointment times, travel times, mileage, appointment statuses, and progress notes. (Id. at 22-23.) Buck frequently communicated with Peer Specialists to ask them to fix documentation issues. (See Id. at 20; see also Warner Aff. ¶ 5, Ex. C.) In addition, Northern Pines staff worked with the Peer Specialists during staff meetings to troubleshoot documentation issues and provide necessary follow-up training. (Buck Dep. at 27-28, 44-45; Hanson Dep. at 192-95.)

         Buck identified numerous documentation errors by multiple Peer Specialists, including, for example, Charly Niesen, Vicki Liebeg, Randy Karppinen, Richard Powell, and Barbara Rekowski. (See Warner Aff. ¶ 5, Ex. C; Buck Dep. at 32-35, 54, 63.) In May 2014, Buck compiled a list of thirty-nine documentation errors for Niesen to fix from the previous ten months. (Warner Aff. ¶ 5, Ex. C, Ex. 7 at ¶ 0001692-93.) On August 18, 2014, Buck identified twelve errors made by Niesen over the previous two weeks. (Id. at NP0001660-61.) When assessing Vicki Liebeg's entries for January and February of 2014, Buck identified fifty-five documentation errors. (Warner Aff. ¶ 5, Ex. C, Ex. 25 at ¶ 0001858-59.) Karppinen made six errors over the course of eight days in May, with one additional unresolved error from April 2014. (Warner Aff. ¶ 5, Ex. C, Ex. 19 at ¶ 0001784-85.) He continued to make a similar number of errors for the next few weeks, including five errors within nine days in July 2014. (Id. at NP0001761-62.) Powell had seventeen unresolved errors between January 2014 and April 2014. (Warner Aff. ¶ 5, Ex. C, Ex. 21 at ¶ 0001798-99.) However, on August 5, 2014, Buck only identified two errors made by Powell in the previous week. (Id. at NP0001793.) Between May 22, 2014 and continuing through August 25, 2014, Buck emailed Rekowski seven times regarding eight documentation errors. (Warner Aff. ¶ 5, Ex. C, Ex. 8 at ¶ 0001640-47.)

         Jensen testified that Procentive documentation issues could usually be addressed through additional training. (Jensen Dep. at 21.) She further testified that when managing documentation issues with Peer Specialists, “[n]othing rose to [the] level” that required disciplinary action, warnings, suspensions, or discharge. (Id.) Leikvoll similarly testified that she did not recall any of the individuals she identified as having difficulties with Procentive being terminated for that reason, except for possibly Liebeg. (Leikvoll Dep. at 17-19.) Even with respect to Liebeg, however, Leikvoll could “not recall the specifics” regarding the reasons for her termination and later indicated her primary issue was possibly “absenteeism.” (Id. at 19, 24-25.) In determining what errors were considered serious, Leikvoll agreed “that it's not the fact that they made the errors that's significant; it's whether or not they're correcting those errors.” (Id. at 67-68.)

         On August 5, 2014, Hanson met with Buck to discuss documentation. (Warner Aff. ¶ 10, Ex. H.) After that meeting, Buck e-mailed Jensen, Gerhardt, and Leikvoll. (Id.; Buck Dep. at 52-53.) Buck wrote that Hanson “reported that something started happening with her eyes last week . . . she went to get an eye exam yesterday to find that something is pulling loose from the back of her eye.” (Warner Aff. ¶ 10, Ex. H.) Buck explained that Hanson would be getting new glasses, and that “she will work on the Procentive fixes when her vision is better.” (Id.) Jensen responded, “Should she be driving?” (Id.) The same day, Leikvoll forwarded these e-mails to Glenn Anderson, an attorney and Executive Director of Northern Pines. (Id.; Goldsmith Aff. ¶ 2, Ex. A (“Anderson Dep.”) at 5, 9-10.) Leikvoll asked: “[C]an we direct Mary Kay not to transport consumers. She is very litigious.” (Warner Aff. ¶ 10, Ex. H.) On August 19, 2014, Anderson responded, “We can on our dime and work time, but what she does on her own is none of our business and we shouldn't be ‘directing' anything outside of work.” (Id.)

         Earlier that year, in May 2014, Jensen and Gerhardt had made comments to each other via e-mail about Hanson, including comments relating to her vision. For example, on May 11, 2014, Hanson informed Jensen that she had difficulty using Procentive “in the evening hours” and that during the day she was taking a medication so she could “see print for short times without becoming physically ill.” (Warner Aff. ¶ 16, Ex. N.) Jensen forwarded the e-mail to Gerhardt, noting “This maybe [sic] an issue down the road.” (Id.) Gerhardt responded, “Oh my! Yep!” (Id.) On May 20, 2014, Hanson e-mailed Jensen requesting that a client be assigned to another Peer Specialist because the client had stated he had a crush on Hanson and would attempt “to sit very close” by Hanson. (Warner Aff. ¶ 17, Ex. O.) Jensen forwarded the e-mail to Gerhardt, who responded, “What a hottie! RRRAAARRRR!!” to which Jensen replied, “Lol.” (Id.) On May 26, 2014, Hanson e-mailed Gerhardt requesting an accommodation with e-mails because her vision condition made it difficult to read a lot of e-mails and document in Procentive. (Warner Aff. ¶ 15, Ex. M.) She mentioned that she gets motion sickness and offered to request help from MSSB. (Id.) She also noted, “I understand that I need to fix things and will work hard to get everything caught up.” (Id.) Gerhardt forwarded the e-mail to Jensen, writing “Heres [sic] your chuckle for the day!!! Oh. . . . It gets even better!” (Id.)

         Leikvoll learned of Hanson's documentation issues in late July or August 2014. (Leikvoll Dep. at 92-94, Exs. 30, 31, 33.) In an August 9, 2014, e-mail to Anderson and Biggins, Leikvoll reported that Hanson's impressive work with clients was “being rapidly overshadowed by failure to correct her errors and dishonesty.” She wrote, “I anticipate a written corrective action plan of action will need to be my next step.” (Leikvoll Dep., Ex. 31.) On August 11, 2014, Buck e-mailed Leikvoll a “paper trail” of Hanson's documentation issues. (Buck Aff. ¶ 7, Ex. E.)

         On August 20, 2014, Leikvoll met with Hanson to discuss her documentation issues and the plan. (Leikvoll Dep. at 108-12.) The plan required that Hanson cancel her appointments for two days “to focus on documentation.” (Hanson Dep., Ex. 5.) The plan authorized Hanson to continue to meet with peers in the community or their homes “after documentation is completed, which will likely be by tomorrow afternoon.” (Id.) Hanson testified that Leikvoll had warned her in the meeting that she may be disciplined if she did not improve her documentation, but she was not told she could face termination. (Hanson Dep. at 203-04.)

         During the August 20, 2014, meeting, Hanson explained that she was experiencing vision issues. (Id. at 204.) In the action plan, Leikvoll prohibited Hanson from driving clients indefinitely, noting that she made the decision “because of the numerous comments Mary Kay has made about vision impairments, eye health and performance issues related to eyesight.” (Hanson Dep., Ex. 5.) The plan stated that Hanson “offered to provide a doctor's note regarding her ability to drive.” (Id.) The same day, Hanson's eye doctor sent a note to Northern Pines stating: “Mary Hanson has 20/20 acuity with correction in each eye. Her vision is good for driving.” (Warner Aff. ¶ 9, Ex. G.)

         After this meeting, Buck wrote to Jensen regarding Hanson, stating, “I can't imagine she got much done at all” during the time she was supposed to be making Procentive corrections. (Buck Aff. ¶ 8, Ex. F.) Buck wrote that Hanson had made some personal phone calls, including one to her doctor, and that “[s]he was in/out so much, there wasn't much time to work on anything for a significant amount of time.” (Id.) Hanson describes the day much differently. (See Hanson Dep. at 212-14.) Hanson recalls “sitting in a room, working very, very hard for a long period of time, ” taking at least one break, and calling her eye doctor. (Id. at 212-13.) She also testified that she came into the office early the next day to work on documentation, but encountered an electrical issue with her computer charger, which started smoking. (Id. at 214-15.) During this incident, Hanson remembers hearing Gerhardt on the phone with Jensen. (Id. at 215.) Hanson recalls Jensen “yelling, ” asking whether Hanson was “causing a scene, ” and wondering if they could call the police to come get Hanson. (Id. at 215-18.)

         Despite these challenges, on August 21, 2014, Hanson completed the documentation with Gerhardt's assistance. (Gerhardt Aff. ¶ 14, Ex. J; see also Hanson Dep. at 218-21.) Gerhardt noted that Hanson informed her that “she cannot see the computer and is unable to complete ‘proper minutes.'” (Gerhardt Aff. ¶ 14, Ex. J.) Gerhardt also wrote that Hanson “is able to complete notes and make them audit ready- with assistance and prompting.” (Id.) In her deposition testimony, Hanson indicated that her inability to properly document entries in Procentive was due to lack of adequate training rather than her vision issues. (Hanson Dep. at 172-73, 179.) She also explained, however, that her inability to see the screen well made entering information into Procentive difficult. (Id. at 162-66.)

         On August 25, 2014, Leikvoll received a call from the MSSB. (Leikvoll Dep. at 140.) The caller informed her it would be illegal to prevent Hanson from driving, that she had passed her eye exam, and that Hanson needed accommodations for her vision condition. (Id. at 140-41.) The next day, Gerhardt learned that another Peer Specialist had received a call from an attorney the previous day asking about workplace accommodations. (Warner Aff. ¶ 13, Ex. K.) Gerhardt informed Leikvoll, who forwarded Gerhardt's e-mail to Anderson, writing, “[s]ounds like Mary Kay got an attorney who is fishing for information about work place [sic] accommodations.” (Id.)

         Hanson submitted a note dated August 27, 2014 to Leikvoll requesting “a job coach from [MSSB] if, in the future, there is [sic] an overwhelming amount of changes to be made in Procentive or any other program that would require a lot of reading or calculations with numbers.” (Warner Aff. ¶ 11, Ex. I; Leikvoll Dep. at 126; Hanson Dep. at 231-32.) She also requested to be allowed to drive again, noting that she had provided a doctor's note on the issue. (Warner Aff. ¶ 11, Ex. I.) In her August 27, 2014 note, Hanson stated: “If you have questions regarding my ability to drive you can talk to Casey Streich, regarding ADA responsibilities at 612-377-1788 or Pam Gowan from the Department of Employment and Economic Development State Services for the Blind at 651-539-2339.” (Id.) Leikvoll did not permit Hanson to drive clients after receiving her request and did not request a fitness for duty examination by any other physician. (Leikvoll Dep. at 96-100, 126-27.)

         On approximately August 29, 2014, Leikvoll requested “a timeline [sic] of Hanson's performance issues” because she “was contemplating terminating Hanson's employment with Northern Pines.” (Doc. No. 20 (“Leikvoll Aff.”) ¶ 7.) Gerhardt shared this time line with Leikvoll, which contained ten entries describing issues from May 16, 2014, through August 27, 2014. (Gerhardt Aff. ¶ 14, Ex. J.) According to Gerhardt's time line, Hanson “stated her ‘eye issues' are interfering with paperwork” as early as June 17, 2014 and indicated that “she [was] unable to see” due to her eyes being dilated on August 5, 2014. (Id.) Only two of the entries described issues that occurred after Hanson completed her documentation fixes on August 21, 2014, and these entries did not describe any documentation issues. (Id.) The August 25, 2014 entry described how Hanson had mentioned “a new diagnosis of ADHD and Executive Functioning Disorder” and “stated in front of peers [that she was] hiring . . . an attorney and advocate.” (Id.)

         In a September 4, 2014 e-mail to Gerhardt, Jensen, and Leikvoll at 12:15 p.m., Buck reported that Hanson had requested assistance updating an appointment's status, creating a time module entry, and entering mileage in Procentive. (Buck Dep., Ex. 56.) Buck found this “a bit disturbing because I have showed her MANY times, e-mailed and printed the step-by-step instructions many times, etc.” (Id.) Buck described Hanson as “very agitated” because Hanson was “angry” that she was not allowed to drive clients. (Id.) She explained that Hanson informed her that a client had cancelled a meeting based on the driving restriction. (Id.) According to Buck, “[Hanson] said that all of her clients are upset about NP not letting her drive them and more will be cancelling.” (Id.)

         Earlier on September 4, 2014, at 9:26 a.m., Gerhardt had e-mailed Hanson, writing that she had heard that Hanson was reportedly “suing Northern Pines.” (Warner Aff. ¶ 4, Ex. B.) Gerhardt asked Hanson to stop discussing “personal issues” at work. (Id.) Leikvoll and Jensen were copied on this e-mail. (Id.) At 10:02 a.m., Hanson responded to Gerhardt, confirming that she had informed another individual that she “had filed a complaint with the Americans with Disability, as I told you I would.” (Warner Aff. ¶ 12, Ex. J.) At 10:05 a.m., Gerhardt forwarded this e-mail to Leikvoll and Jensen. (Id.) Also at 10:05 a.m., Leikvoll forwarded Gerhardt's original e-mail referencing Hanson's “suing Northern Pines” comment to Anderson. (Warner Aff. ¶ 4, Ex. B.) A few hours later, at 2:41 p.m., Leikvoll and Anderson had a phone call. (Leikvoll Dep. at 135-36.)

         On September 8, 2014, Hanson's employment was terminated.[1] (Hanson Dep. at 246.) Hanson was informed that she was “terminated due to performance issues, specifically, documentation.” (Hanson Dep., Ex. 14.) According to Hanson, Leikvoll also stated in the termination meeting that Hanson “couldn't see” and “couldn't drive because [she] couldn't see.” (Hanson Dep. at 248-49.) Hanson questioned the justification for her termination because “everything was perfect” in her documentation since the corrective action plan was completed. (Id. at 249-50.)

         Anderson testified that his role in Hanson's termination “was to affirm or not affirm” Leikvoll's termination decision. (Anderson Dep. at 27.) He explained that he had likely affirmed Leikvoll's decision in a cell phone conversation. (Id. at 27-29.) Leikvoll's cell phone records indicate that the only call she had with Anderson between September 4, 2014, and September 8, 2014, was the call at 2:41 p.m. on September 4, 2014. (Warner Aff. ¶ 14, Ex. L at ¶ 0002049-50; see also Leikvoll Dep. at 135-37.) The Human Resources Director at Northern Pines was not consulted about the ...

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