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Eberenz v. Cincinnati Children's Hospital

November 28, 2006

ANN EBERENZ, PLAINTIFF,
v.
CINCINNATI CHILDREN'S HOSPITAL, MEDICAL CENTER DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Michael R. Barrett

OPINION & ORDER

This matter is before the Court upon Defendant Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center's Motion for Summary Judgment. (Doc. 9) Plaintiff Ann Eberenz filed a Memorandum in Opposition (Doc. 16), and Defendant filed a Reply (Doc. 20). This matter is ripe for review.

I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

In 1998, Plaintiff began working for Defendant as a computer operator. (Doc. 14, Ann Eberenz Depo. at 13) In 2000, Plaintiff transferred to a position as a help desk analyst in the Information Services Department. (Id. at 13-14) A help desk analyst responds to calls from employees, patients, or others who have computer or telephone equipment problems. (Doc. 13, Tony Johnston Depo. at 26-27) An analyst takes hundreds of calls each week. (Id. at 24) During a call, an analyst is expected to obtain information from the caller, analyze and assess the situation, and independently determine the appropriate course of action to resolve the issue. (Doc. 12, Karen Maas Depo. at 18; Doc. 10, Marianne James Depo. at 15) Customer service is an essential part of the job. (Doc. 9, Maas Decl. ¶ 7)

In November of 2001, Karen Maas was hired as Director of Information Services Customer Services. (Maas Decl. ¶ 5) Maas was Plaintiff's direct supervisor. (Maas Depo. at 5) Maas' supervisors were Marianne James, Vice President of Information Services, and Tony Johnston, Assistant Vice President of Information Services. (James Depo. at 6, 10, 13) James and Johnston instructed Maas that she "needed to raise the bar" in Customer Services because there was a general dissatisfaction with the quality of service being provided by this division. (Id. ¶ 6) Maas spoke with her employees regarding the need to improve customer service skills. (Id. ¶ 7) Johnston also spoke with employees, telling them that customers have "to hear their smile." (Johnston Depo. at 26) Johnston told employees: "This may be the only interaction that person ever has with IS; I want it to be a positive uplifting experience as opposed to a negative one, a very monotone or very bland experience." (Id. at 27)

Maas began to monitor the help desk analysts' performance by listening to phone calls. (Maas Depo. at 36, 39-40) Maas provided feedback to Plaintiff, telling her that she needed to improve her customer service skills, by saying "please," "thank you," and "is there anything else I can do for you?" (Id. at 41) Maas also told Plaintiff to listen better, and ask for better information. (Id.) Maas felt that Plaintiff interrupted callers and tried to hurry through calls. (Id.)

Johnston and Maas received complaints about Plaintiff from customers and co-workers. (Johnston Depo. at 17, 21, 23; Maas Depo. at 56) James also complained to Johnston about Plaintiff's monotone voice and poor listening skills. (James Depo. at 21) Maas documented two of the customer complaints and counseled Plaintiff on how she handled the calls. (Maas Decl. ¶ 8 & Ex. 2) The first documented complaint occurred in October of 2002. (Id.) The second complaint occurred in July of 2003. (Id.) Maas played a recording of the first call, and explained to Plaintiff that she was abrupt, interrupted the caller, did not use "please" or "thank you," did not explain how the problem would be fixed, or give the caller any confidence in the system. (Id.) The second call dealt with access to computer records as part of an investigation of an employee. Maas explained to Plaintiff that this was a sensitive situation, and she should have involved human resources; Plaintiff should have designated the "ticket" for this call as critical priority; and some of the information on the ticket should not have been recorded due to the private and confidential nature of the situation. (Id. ¶ 8, Ex. 3) Maas also pointed out that Plaintiff interrupted the caller many times, and did not use many pleasantries. (Id.) Maas told Plaintiff that she did not feel that Plaintiff really understood what was going on or being asked for. (Id.)

Maas began recruiting for a senior help desk analyst. (Maas Depo. at 33-34) Plaintiff asked to be considered for the position, and Maas interviewed Plaintiff. (Maas Decl. ¶ 9) Maas did not feel that Plaintiff was qualified for the position. (Id.) Maas told Plaintiff that she needed to work on her customer service skills and "grow into" her position of help desk analyst. (Id.) Maas hired David Burns for the position because Maas believed that he was the most qualified candidate. (Id.) Burns had prior customer service experience as an information technology consultant and a business development manager. (Id.)

In August of 2003, Maas met with Plaintniff to discuss her annual performance appraisal. (Maas Depo. at 94; James Depo., Ex. 1) Maas rated Plaintiff as "needs improvement" in nine areas. (James Depo., Ex. 1) As a consequence, Plaintiff was placed on a performance improvement plan. (Maas Decl. ¶ 11) This was the first time that Plaintiff had formally been disciplined for any performance related issues. (Eberenz Aff. ¶ 1) Over a three month period, Maas met with Plaintiff, and counseled her in each of the areas she needed to improve. (Maas Decl. ¶ 11) Lalita Duggal, the lead help desk analyst, also met with Plaintiff. (Id. ¶ 12) In December of 2003, Maas passed Plaintiff from the performance improvement plan. However, Maas had concerns that Plaintiff was only doing what was necessary to pass the performance improvement plan, and was not making efforts for continuous long-term improvement. (Maas Decl. ¶ 12) Maas told Plaintiff that she needed to follow-through on continuing to improve. (Id.)

In January of 2004, James and Johnston listened to two calls between Plaintiff and a nurse who was reporting problems with a patient's phone. (James Depo. at 42-43; Johnston Depo. at 60) Plaintiff told the nurse to call another number, failed to provide a warm hand-off to the correct person, and failed to ensure that someone was able to help the nurse. (Id.) When the nurse called again, Plaintiff asked the nurse several times for her name and the room or phone number involved. (Id.) Plaintiff then asked the nurse to go check the phone to make sure that it could not dial out or receive calls. (Maas Depo. at 117; James Depo. at 49-50) While Plaintiff was on hold, Plaintiff stated: "these people are pissing me off." (James Depo. at 51)

James and Johnston discussed the situation, and decided to terminate Plaintiff. (Id. at 63) Maas agreed that Plaintiff should be terminated. (Maas Depo. at 115, 121-22) The Vice President of Human Resources approved this decision. (Johnston Depo. at 63-64) Maas and Johnston met with Plaintiff and informed her that she was being terminated. (Johnston Depo. at 69-70; Maas Depo. at 118-19) Maas and Johnston told Plaintiff that after two years of coaching and counseling and a performance improvement plan, the way she handled the calls from the nurse showed extremely poor customer service. (Maas Decl. ¶ 13) Maas and Johnston explained to Plaintiff that the comment she made while on hold was unacceptable. (Johnston Depo. at 75) Johnston explained that the comment was "the straw that broke the camel's back." (Id. at 52)

Plaintiff used Defendant's internal grievance procedure to grieve her termination. (Ebernez Depo. at 31) A grievance panel recommended that the termination be upheld. (Maas Decl. ¶¶ 4, 14) The CEO of the Hospital reviewed the panel's decision, and upheld the termination. (Maas Decl. ¶ 14)

A week before Plaintiff's calls with the nurse, Burns argued and raised his voice during a call with a vendor. (Maas Depo. at 42-43) Maas "strongly counseled" Burns for his conduct. (Id. at 43) Maas did not terminate or formally discipline Burns for this incident. (Id. at 42-43)

Shortly after Plaintiff's termination, another help desk analyst, Eric Loosekamp, made derogatory comments about a customer while on a call. (Johnston Depo. at 55) Loosekamp was counseled, but was not terminated. (Id. at 56-57) Maas later placed Loosekamp on a performance improvement plan for inappropriately challenging his supervisors. (Doc. 16, Ex. C) Maas gave ...


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