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The Minnesota Supreme Court recently reaffirmed the use of the familiar McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework to analyze claims of retaliation under Minnesota law, despite the ask by the plaintiff-appellant and amici to abolish using that framework. The court also affirmed the requirement that employees show evidence of an employer’s intent to unlawfully retaliate against employees before allowing whistleblower claims to go to trial. (Hanson v. State of Minnesota, No. A20-0747, Apr. 6, 2022).
The plaintiff, an official of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), had been staying at a casino hotel on the Bois Forte Indian Reservation. Once at the hotel, she claims to have heard a baby “incessantly crying,” apparently unattended, and noticed what she believed was a prostitution ring operating out of the room next to hers. While investigating the situation, the plaintiff peered out of her room into the hallway while unclothed. Later, with clothing on, she spoke to two men who she described as appearing to her to be either johns or pimps near the same room.
The plaintiff reported these incidents to hotel management. Hotel security and the hotel manager investigated the neighboring room and found that everything was secure and the child was safe. The hotel manager also updated the plaintiff regarding these findings. Nevertheless, the plaintiff called 911, identified herself as a “state official,” asked for a “safe escort” from the hotel, and further stated that she was “barricaded” in her room and had “stumbled upon” a prostitution ring. As a result of this call, a Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) Officer and a police officer arrived at the hotel. The BIA officer and the police officer knocked on the neighboring door and found one woman and four children in a room that was clean and orderly. The woman explained that the youngest child was teething and crying a lot. The officers reported these facts to the plaintiff and informed her that the hotel wanted her to leave.
The plaintiff then asked the BIA officer if it would be possible for her to ask a DNR officer to accompany her from the hotel. Eventually, a DNR conservation officer and a St. Louis County sheriff responded, escorting her out of the hotel.
The next day, the BIA officer reported to DNR that the plaintiff was harassing and abusive toward hotel staff and law enforcement. DNR later investigated the incident and DNR’s Human Resources (HR) Director terminated the plaintiff’s employment. The HR Director later testified that the plaintiff was terminated because she was nude in a public space, was asked to leave the hotel because of the way she was conducting herself, questioned the BIA’s jurisdiction to respond to the hotel, and misused her state position. He further testified that he had no problem with the employee reporting the baby crying or her suspicions about the prostitution ring. The plaintiff then filed suit.
Supreme Court Finds No Evidence of Retaliation and Upholds Grant of Summary Judgment
The plaintiff filed suit under the Minnesota Whistleblower Act, claiming that the DNR fired her due to her protected reports of unlawful conduct – namely her reports of potential prostitution. After the district court granted summary judgment in favor of the DNR, the matter eventually was appealed to the Minnesota Supreme Court. The supreme court held that the grant of summary judgment was proper because there was no evidence that the DNR’s asserted non-retaliatory reasons for the termination of the plaintiff’s employment were a pretext for a retaliatory motive.
The case is particularly noteworthy because, in reaching its holding, the court rejected the effort by the plaintiff and her amici to use this case as a vehicle to jettison the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework used in analyzing retaliation claims based on indirect or circumstantial evidence. The court also reiterated that employees must show in these circumstances that an employer’s reason for termination was a pretext for an illegal intent.
In applying the McDonnell Douglas framework to the facts of this case, the court held that although the plaintiff established a prima facie retaliation claim, she could not show pretext. The court noted that the reason for termination given by the HR Director was not shown to be false. Nor was her termination motivated by an intent to retaliate against her for having raised concerns of possible prostitution at the hotel. Instead, the supreme court emphasized that superseding, intervening misconduct by the plaintiff operated to sever any possible causal link that might otherwise be implied by the temporal proximity of the plaintiff’s protected report and her termination of employment. The plaintiff’s nudity in a public space, her mistreatment of hotel staff and government officials, and her misuse of her position as a public official were ultimately found to have established legitimate, non-retaliatory, and non-pretextual reasons for her termination. The court thus affirmed the grant of summary judgment in favor of the DNR.
Key Takeaways for Minnesota Employers
The Hanson holding provides guidance and reminders for employers on several points:
- The McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework will continue to apply to claims under the Minnesota Whistleblower Act claims at the summary judgment stage.
- An employee is not insulated from discipline for their own misconduct in the workplace, simply because they engage in statutorily-protected conduct.
- Employers should continue to carefully assess disciplinary and discharge decisions for employees who may have made a complaint of alleged protected activity to ensure a legitimate, nonretaliatory reason exists for any adverse action.