May 5, 2016

Tick Tock: Appeals Court Opens Door to Stale Discrimination Claims by Broadly Interpreting Statute of Limitations Tolling Clause

Posted in Age, Discrimination, Employee Handbooks, Harassment, Limitation of Actions, MDHR Mediation, Sexual Harassment, Statutes of Limitation tagged , , , , , , , at 11:42 am by Tom Jacobson

Tom Jacobson retake - Copy - Cropped

“In light of the Peterson decision, employers should review their HR complaint policies to minimize the chance of inadvertent extensions of the Minnesota Human Rights Act statute of limitations,” says employment law attorney Tom Jacobson.

Employers may need to update their HR complaint policies and procedures in light of a May 2, 2016 decision by the Minnesota Court of Appeals in the case of Peterson v. City of Minneapolis. The decision has the impact of potentially extending the time limit employees have for pursuing claims under the Minnesota Human Rights Act, and policy updates may minimize the impact of this decision.

The Peterson case started when two Minneapolis police officers claimed their October, 2011 transfers were the result of age discrimination. The officers filed complaints with the city’s human resources department a month later. The HR department investigated the complaints, and in January, 2013 the department concluded that the transfers were not based on age.

The officers then filed age discrimination charges with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights. They later withdrew those charges, but in March, 2014 they filed a lawsuit against the city of Minneapolis. The trial court dismissed the officers’ case on the basis that it was started after the one year statute of limitations in the Minnesota Human Rights Act had expired. One of the officers appealed.

In reviewing the trial court’s decision, the appellate court noted that under the MHRA:

The running of the one-year limitation period is suspended during the time a potential charging party and respondent are voluntarily engaged in a dispute resolution process involving a claim of unlawful discrimination under this chapter, including arbitration, conciliation, mediation or grievance procedures pursuant to a collective bargaining agreement or statutory, charter, ordinance provisions for a civil service or other employment system or a school board sexual harassment or sexual violence policy.

Thus, the issue before the Court of Appeals was whether filing an internal complaint with the city’s HR department meant the parties were “voluntarily engaged in a dispute resolution process involving a claim of unlawful discrimination,” so as to suspend (or “toll”) the running of the MHRA’s one-year statute of limitations. The court ruled that they were.

Specifically, the court held that the city’s HR complaint process was a “dispute resolution process” under the MHRA, so by engaging in that process, the statute of limitations did not run while that process was ongoing. Consequently, the officers’ MDHR charge, which was filed more than a year after the alleged discrimination, was ruled to be timely despite the MHRA’s one-year statute of limitations.

With this ruling, the Court of Appeals has essentially given employees a tool for dragging out their deadline for filing MHRA charges or lawsuits well beyond the one-year time limit they would otherwise have. This is because for as long as they and the employer are engaged in an internal HR complaint process, the statute of limitations clock will likely not be ticking.

Taken to extremes, this means an employee could file an internal complaint 364 days after an alleged discriminatory act, thereby likely suspending the statute of limitations that would otherwise have expired the next day. And, because the Court of Appeals did not clarify the limits of what it means to “voluntarily engage in” such internal complaint processes, it appears an employee could extend the time limit almost indefinitely by repeatedly engaging the employer in ongoing discussions about the same problem or the process itself.

It is difficult to predict how this case will play out in practice. However, to minimize its impact, employers should consider: revising HR complaint policies to address how such complaints impact the MHRA’s statute of limitations; promptly investigating and resolving discrimination and harassment complaints so as to quickly end what could be perceived as “voluntary engagement” in a “dispute resolution process.”

For more information about these or other employment law issues, please contact me at taj@alexandriamnlaw.com.

The comments posted in this article are for general informational purposes only. They are not to be considered as legal advice, and they do not establish an attorney-client relationship. For legal advice regarding your specific situation, please consult your attorney.

Copyright 2016 Swenson Lervick Syverson Trosvig Jacobson Schultz Cass, PA.

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October 6, 2015

Jack Link’s Missing Link: Company Pays $50K to Settle Claim of Ongoing Sexual Harassment

Posted in Discrimination, Employee Handbooks, Gender / Sex, Harassment, Harassment, Hostile Work Environment, Minnesota Human Rights Act, Sexual Harassment, Sexual Harassment, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , , at 10:28 am by Tom Jacobson

A recently settled Minnesota Department of Human Rights charge against Jack Link’s Beef Jerky emphasizes the importance of follow-through when responding to sexual harassment allegations. According to the Department, Jack Link’s initially took the “right step” in disciplining the alleged harasser but then failed to monitor the situation, which included ongoing harassment.

Specifically, MDHR reports that shortly after being hired by Jack Link’s, a female employee’s supervisor made sexual advances toward her, called her “baby,” said she was beautiful, asked if she was single, chanted “pack baby pack,” and asked if he was too old for her. The Department also reports that although Jack Link’s initially disciplined the supervisor, the company then promoted him to be woman’s direct supervisor, after which he continued to harass the employee. Claiming she could no longer tolerate the work environment, the woman quit.

Thus, based on the MDHR’s findings, the missing link in Jack Link’s response was the lack of follow-through and monitoring. As noted by MDHR Commissioner Kevin Lindsey:

This is an unusual case in that the employer took the right step in originally disciplining the supervisor. The employer however undermined its efforts by not subsequently monitoring the actions of the alleged harasser. Employers need to maintain contact with the employee who has complained of sexual harassment to make sure that the measures that they have undertaken are actually working.

To settle the charge, Jack Link’s agreed to pay the victim $50,000.00 and to provide training on the Minnesota Human Rights Act and how to properly respond to sexual harassment allegations.

Generally speaking, employers must first take steps to prevent unlawful workplace harassment. But if, despite those efforts, an employee claims that harassment has occurred, employers must take prompt action to correct and stop that behavior. As the Jack Link’s case points out, this includes careful monitoring and follow-through to make sure the harassment does not continue or recur.

For more information about this article or about the harassment training, policy development, and related services I can provide, please contact me at alexandriamnlaw.com or  taj@alexandriamnlaw.com.

The comments posted in this blog are for general informational purposes only. They are not to be considered as legal advice, and they do not establish an attorney-client relationship. For legal advice regarding your specific situation, please consult your attorney.

Copyright 2015 Swenson Lervick Syverson Trosvig Jacobson Schultz Cass, PA

January 29, 2015

Hit-men, harassment & the perils of office romance

Posted in Discrimination, Employee Handbooks, Gender / Sex, Harassment, Harassment, Hostile Work Environment, Minnesota Human Rights Act, Office Dating, Office Romance - Dating, Sexual Harassment, Sexual Harassment, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Workplace Romance tagged , , , , , , , at 11:09 am by Tom Jacobson

office romanceWith Valentine’s Day just around the corner, it seems like a good time to remind everyone that office romance is generally a very bad idea. After all, it might lead to murder-for-hire plots, ugly custody fights, and the occasional sexual harassment suit.

Take the recent Stearns County, Minnesota case involving Nomad Pipeline Services CEO Robert Schueller. He was charged with orchestrating a murder-for-hire plot where it’s alleged that he tried to hire a hit man to kill the fiance’ of an employee with whom he had an affair (see MyFox9, Charges: Office affair break-up, murder-for-hire plot). Mr. Schueller ultimately pled guilty to one count of sending threatening communication (See WCCO TV, Company President Pleads Guilty in Plot Involving Employees).

Or, there’s the case that fellow blawger Eric Meyer recently noted where an office affair apparently resulted in pregnancy, a custody battle, and a sexual harassment claim.

Those are extreme examples of love gone bad, but I’ve seen office romance cases that have taken a big toll, albeit without the intrigue. Co-workers perceive favoritism toward the boss’s paramour. Jilted lovers persist in their advances, which are then perceived as hostile. Encounters that were once consensual are suddenly claimed to be unwelcome. Employees struggle to know how to end a personal relationship when they have to continue working with their former significant other. What was once romance becomes harassment that ends up in court.

Of course, there are examples where office dating blossoms into healthy relationships. However, no one can predict where a new romance will lead. To mimimize the risk that it will lead to the courthouse, see my prior article, Big Bang and the Office Dating Game.

Have you taken my poll on President Obama’s mandatory paid sick leave proposal? If not, click here. Poll closes January 30.

For more information about this article, please contact me at alexandriamnlaw.com or  taj@alexandriamnlaw.com.

The comments posted in this blog are for general informational purposes only. They are not to be considered as legal advice, and they do not establish an attorney-client relationship. For legal advice regarding your specific situation, please consult your attorney.

Copyright 2015 Swenson Lervick Syverson Trosvig Jacobson Schultz, PA

October 16, 2014

Workplace bullying: on the job with Scut Farkus

Posted in Bullying, Bullying, Cyber Bullying, Discrimination, Harassment, Harassment, Hostile Work Environment, Workplace Violence tagged , , , , at 10:30 am by Tom Jacobson

Scut Farkus

Scut Farkus – future workplace bully?

In the holiday classic A Christmas Story, playground bully Scut Farkus torments Ralphie Parker until Ralphie pummels Scut after one too many snowballs to the face. We cheer for Ralphie because he’s the good kid who takes a stand against Scut’s relentless bullying. But what happens when Scut gets a job? What is the law on workplace bullying?

I recently attended a community conversation about workplace bullying. The discussion confirmed that there is much confusion about the topic. The debate is no doubt fueled by recent media attention and legislative attempts to regulate bullying.

Those efforts have been partially successful in the school setting. For example, the State of Minnesota earlier this year passed the Safe and Supportive Schools Act. This new law defines and regulates bullying in the state’s public and charter schools. However, workplace bullying is neither defined nor prohibited by any state or federal law.

Even if the conduct creates a hostile work environment, bullying alone is not unlawful unless the behavior violates some other established law. Recent court decisions emphasize how difficult it is to turn garden-variety bullying into a legal claim.

For example, in Johnson v City University of New York, an employee claimed that a co-worker’s bullying violated Title VII. The judge last month threw out the case, saying:

Victims of non-discriminatory bullying at the workplace, like those treated unfairly for reasons other than their membership in a protected class, must look outside Title VII to secure what may be their fair due. The Court does not condone bullying, but it cannot read Title VII to protect its victims unless the bullying reflects discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals last year overturned a $270,000.00 Ramsey County jury verdict in favor of an employee who reported being bullied by his boss (see Absey v. Dish Network, LLC). Because Minnesota has no anti-workplace bullying law, the plaintiff’s legal theory was actually based on Minnesota’s whistle-blower law, Minn. Stat. § 181.932. In reversing the jury’s verdict, the Court of Appeals ruled that the plaintiff failed to prove that the employer’s adverse action against him was because he complained about his boss.

Bullied employees have found some limited success in the courts. In one Indiana case, Raess v. Doescher, an employee won a lawsuit based on his employer’s behavior, which the court described as “aggressively and rapidly advanc[ing] on the plaintiff with clenched fists, piercing eyes, beet-red face, popping veins, and screaming and swearing at him.” This conduct could certainly be characterized as “bullying,” but the plaintiff won his case not because he was “bullied” but because the jury found the employer’s conduct to be an assault under Indiana law.

These cases underscore the current reality that when employees are confronted by a Scut Farkus-like co-worker, there are no laws specifically defining or prohibiting workplace bullying. However, if the bully’s conduct is egregious enough, there already exist other legal claims that could provide recourse. In addition to assault and whistle-blower claims, it is conceivable that under the right set of facts, bullied employees could successfully sue for intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligence or other wrongs based on another employee’s bullying behaviors. And, when bullying is based on employees’ protected class status, they may have viable claims under Title VII and/or comparable laws.

But rather than litigation and legislation, perhaps the better solution is to curb such behaviors through better employment policies and practices that encourage and model respectful working relationships.

For more information about this article, please contact me at alexandriamnlaw.com or  taj@alexandriamnlaw.com.

The comments posted in this blog are for general informational purposes only. They are not to be considered as legal advice, and they do not establish an attorney-client relationship. For legal advice regarding your specific situation, please consult your attorney.

Copyright 2014 Swenson Lervick Syverson Trosvig Jacobson Schultz, PA

July 1, 2014

Key provisions of WESA take effect July 1

Posted in Care of Relatives Leave, Discrimination, Domestic violence, Employee Handbooks, Employee Privacy, Equal Pay, Gender / Sex, Leaves of Absence, Minnesota Human Rights Act, Minnesota Parenting Leave Act, Nursing Mothers, Parenting Leave, Pregnancy, Retaliation, Sick Leave, Sick or Injured Child Care Leave, Wage non-disclosure, Women's Economic Security Act tagged , , , , , at 12:56 pm by Tom Jacobson

2014_05_11_WESA_signingAlthough Gov. Mark Dayton signed it into law on May 11, 2014 the following key provisions of the Women’s Economic Security Act (WESA) go into effect today:

  • Expansion of Minnesota’s parenting and pregnancy leave laws: More employees are now eligible for this leave, and the amount of available leave has been increased from six to twelve weeks. Applies to Minnesota employers with 21 or more employees.
  • Expansion of permissible use of sick leave: Parents-in-law and grandchildren are now included in the list of persons for whom eligible employees may use their sick leave. Employees may also use sick leave for “safety leave,” which is leave for the purpose of providing or receiving assistance because of sexual assault, domestic abuse, or stalking. Applies to Minnesota employers with 21 or more employees.
  • Wage disclosure prohibitions; employee handbook notice requirement; remedies: Prohibits employers from, among other things, requiring employees to keep their wages confidential. Requires employers to include in their employee handbooks a notice regarding employees’ rights and remedies under the new law. Allows employers to prohibit wage disclosure to competitors and to otherwise protect trade secrets, proprietary and other privileged information. Applies to all Minnesota employers with one or more employees.
  • Clarifies rights of nursing mothers: Clarifies that when making reasonable efforts to provide a room or other location for expressing breast milk in privacy, that space must: be in close proximity to the work area; be somewhere other than a bathroom or a toilet stall; be shielded from view; be free from intrusion from coworkers and the public; and include access to an electrical outlet.  Applies to all Minnesota employers with one or more employees.

This is only a summary of portions of WESA that take effect today. Other provisions of WESA went into effect on May 12, 2014; more will take effect August 1, 2014. To learn how WESA may impact your workplace, please contact me at taj@alexandriamnlaw.com.

The comments posted in this blog are for general informational purposes only. They are not to be considered as legal advice, and they do not establish an attorney-client relationship. For legal advice regarding your specific situation, please consult your attorney.

Copyright 2014 Swenson Lervick Syverson Trosvig Jacobson Schultz, PA

May 12, 2014

Seminar to address Women’s Economic Security Act

Posted in Care of Relatives Leave, Discrimination, Domestic violence, Equal Pay, Family and Medical Leave Act, Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), Family Leave, Gender / Sex, Leaves of Absence, Leaves of Absence, Minnesota Parenting Leave Act, Nursing Mothers, Parenting Leave, Pregnancy, Reasonable Accommodation, Sick or Injured Child Care Leave tagged , , , at 8:40 am by Tom Jacobson

Gov. Mark Dayton yesterday signed into law the Women’s Economic Security Act. Among other things, the new law will expand leave rights for many Minnesota employees. The new law will be covered in detail at the Eleventh Annual West Central Minnesota Employment Law Update to be held on Thursday, June 12, 2014 at Alexandria Technical and Community College.

The event has been approved for 6.0 HRCI credits. For complete details on the seminar, go to 2014 Employment Law Update Agenda. To register, go to 2014 Employment Law Update Registration.

For more information about this article, please contact me at alexandriamnlaw.com or taj@alexandriamnlaw.com.

The comments posted in this blog are for general informational purposes only. They are not to be considered as legal advice, and they do not establish an attorney-client relationship. For legal advice regarding your specific situation, please consult your attorney.

Copyright 2014 Swenson Lervick Syverson Trosvig Jacobson Schultz, PA

April 24, 2014

Women’s Economic Security Act Passed by MN House

Posted in Care of Relatives Leave, Caregiver Leave, Discrimination, Domestic violence, Employee Handbooks, Equal Pay, Family and Medical Leave Act, Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), Gender / Sex, Leaves of Absence, Leaves of Absence, Minnesota Parenting Leave Act, Nursing Mothers, Pregnancy, Reasonable Accommodation, Workplace Violence tagged , , , , , , , , , at 11:32 am by Tom Jacobson

The Minnesota House of Representatives on April 9, 2014 passed the Women’s Economic Security Act (HF 2536) by a 106-24 vote. The companion Senate bill (SF 2050) awaits action in the Senate.

According to the Senate’s bill summary, the law will:

  • Allow mothers to stay in the workplace by expanding family leave and providing minor, reasonable accommodations for pregnant and nursing employees;
  • Decrease the gender pay gap through the participation of women in high-wage, high-demand nontraditional work;
  • Reduce the gender pay gap through increased enforcement of equal pay laws for state contractors and by allowing employees to discuss pay inequities;
  • Address economic consequences of domestic violence, stalking, and sexual assault;
  • Enhance retirement security by considering a state retirement savings plan for those without an employer-provided option
  • Expand grandparent care-giving options.

The law would also allow employers to reduce the period of leave it may require by the amount of any paid leave or leave required by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), so that the total time off does not exceed 12 weeks. The new law would clarify that only 12 weeks of leave are required even if the employee is eligible for both state and federal leave.

What you need to know: If enacted into law, this legislation will require most Minnesota employers to take a close look at their existing policies and procedures and to make any changes necessary to bring them into compliance.

For more information about this article, please contact me at alexandriamnlaw.com or  taj@alexandriamnlaw.com.

The comments posted in this blog are for general informational purposes only. They are not to be considered as legal advice, and they do not establish an attorney-client relationship. For legal advice regarding your specific situation, please consult your attorney.

Copyright 2014 Swenson Lervick Syverson Trosvig Jacobson Schultz, PA

June 26, 2013

Supreme Court issues employer-friendly decision defining “supervisor”

Posted in Discrimination, Employee Handbooks, Harassment, Harassment, Hostile Work Environment, Sexual Harassment, Sexual Harassment tagged , , , , , at 9:34 am by Tom Jacobson

IMG_5577Even though they’re over two centuries old, the words of United States Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall in Marbury v. Madison hold true today — it is the court’s job to say what the law is. Because of that power, we rely on the court to interpret the laws that affect our everyday personal and work lives. This week was no exception, as the court issued its long-awaited decision in Vance v. Ball State University.

Vance is a very important case for employers and employees because it defines who is a “supervisor” under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It’s a significant issue because in harassment cases under Title VII, an employer’s liability depends to some extent on whether the harasser is a supervisor.

In previous cases, the Supreme Court said that if the harasser is a co-worker, the employer is liable if the employer is negligent in controlling the work environment, but if the harasser is a supervisor, then the employer’s liability depends on whether or not the harassment resulted in tangible adverse employment action against the victim.  If so, the employer is strictly liable. If not, the company may avoid liability by proving that it exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct harassment and that the victim unreasonably failed to take advantage of the preventive or corrective opportunities provided.

The unanswered question, which the high court answered in Vance, was just who is a supervisor under Title VII? In a 5-4 opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito, the court answered the question by ruling that for the purposes of Title VII, supervisors are only those employees who are empowered by the employer to take tangible employment action against the victim.  The court rejected a broader definition of supervisor, which would have included anyone with authority to direct and oversee the victim’s work.

What you need to know: The Vance decision is a victory for employers because it limits the number of employees who are considered “supervisors” under Tittle VII, and that, in turn limits the circumstances under which strict liability will attach. It is not, however, a green light to allow unlawful workplace harassment. Therefore, employers must still be proactive in taking steps to prevent and correct such behavior, including policy development, training and prompt and effective responses to harassment allegations.

For more information about this article, please contact me at alexandriamnlaw.com or  taj@alexandriamnlaw.com.

The comments posted in this blog are for general informational purposes only. They are not to be considered as legal advice, and they do not establish an attorney-client relationship. For legal advice regarding your specific situation, please consult your attorney.

Copyright 2013 Swenson Lervick Syverson Trosvig Jacobson Schultz, PA

February 15, 2013

New FMLA poster requirement takes effect March 8

Posted in Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), Leaves of Absence, Posting Requirements, Posting Requirements, Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , at 7:16 am by Tom Jacobson

FMLABy March 8, 2013 employers covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act must start using the new poster prepared by the United States Department of Labor. The poster summarizes the major provisions of the FMLA, and it advises employees how to file a complaint. The DOL requires the poster to be “displayed in a conspicuous place where employees and applicants for employment can see it…. [and] at all locations even if there are no eligible employees.” Covered employers may continue to use the old version of this poster until March 7, but thereafter they must post the new notice.

Not every employer in the U.S. is covered by the FMLA. Under the FMLA, a “covered employer” is a:

  • Private-sector employer, with 50 or more employees in 20 or more workweeks in the current or preceding calendar year, including a joint employer or successor in interest to a covered employer;
  • Public agency, including a local, state, or Federal government agency, regardless of the number of employees it employs; or
  • Public or private elementary or secondary school, regardless of the number of employees it employs.

Download the DOL’s new poster by clicking here or by visiting the DOL Wage and Hour Division’s FMLA site. For more information about this article, please contact me at alexandriamnlaw.com or  taj@alexandriamnlaw.com.

The comments posted in this blog are for general informational purposes only. They are not to be considered as legal advice, and they do not establish an attorney-client relationship. For legal advice regarding your specific situation, please consult your attorney.

Copyright 2013 Swenson Lervick Syverson Trosvig Jacobson Schultz, PA

January 22, 2013

Updating employee handbooks: now is the time

Posted in Acknowledgment, Arrest records, At-will Employment, Background Checking, Computer Use, Confidential Information, Conviction Records, Criminal History, Disclaimers, Employee Handbooks, Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), Hiring and Recruiting, Internet Policies, Interviewing, Leaves of Absence, Leaves of Absence, Minnesota Parenting Leave Act, National Labor Relations Act, Protected Concerted Activity, Social Media, Social Media in the Workplace, Social Networking tagged , , , , , , , , at 10:47 am by Tom Jacobson

employee handbook1I recently had the privilege of speaking at and moderating a day-long seminar covering recent developments in employment law. Although the topics ranged broadly from background checks to the basics of employee leave, one common theme emerged: employers who have not kept their employee handbooks and other policies up to date are running the increased risk of liability for legal claims brought by their employees.

For example:

  • Some commonly used “at-will” employment acknowledgments, confidentiality clauses, investigation practices, and social medial policies have been deemed to violate the National Labor Relations Act.
  • The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has published guidance on how arrest and conviction records may be used when performing background checks on applicants or employees. Among other things, these guidelines address when an individualized assessment of an applicant’s or employee’s arrest or conviction record should be done.
  • One recent litigation trend is employers and employees (or former employees)  fighting over the ownership of social media accounts and followers.
  • Recent court decisions have broadly interpreted employees’ rights to parenting leave under Minnesota law.
  • At least four states (California, Illinois, Maryland and Michigan) have adopted laws regulating employers’ access to employees’ social media sites, and similar legislation has been proposed in Minnesota.

What you need to know: If your employee handbooks and policies have not been reviewed by legal counsel and updated recently, now is the time. For more information about this process, please contact me at 320-763-3141 or taj@alexandriamnlaw.com.

The comments posted in this blog are for general informational purposes only. They are not to be considered as legal advice, and they do not establish an attorney-client relationship. For legal advice regarding your specific situation, please consult your attorney.

Copyright 2013 Swenson Lervick Syverson Trosvig Jacobson Schultz, PA

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