Minnesota Supreme Court Clarifies MHRA Standards regarding Hostile Work Environment and Adverse Employment Action

The Minnesota Supreme Court issued an important decision in an employment law case on February 8, 2023, Henry v. Independent School District 625.  The Plaintiff, Barbara Henry, was a Network Technician for the St. Paul Public School District from 1997-2017.  In 2014, a new Deputy Chief was hired, and in 2016, the new Deputy Chief rated Plaintiff’s performance as below expectations, also issuing a performance improvement plan.  This was the first below expectations rating Plaintiff had received in 19 years.  In a follow-up post-PIP review, the Chief Deputy again rated Plaintiff as below expectations, and indicated she would recommend Plaintiff’s termination.  Plaintiff then resigned.

In a 35-page opinion, the Court made three significant rulings.

First, the Minnesota Supreme court held that a plaintiff may prove age discrimination on a hostile work environment theory.  The Court held that the same severe or pervasive standard from hostile work environment based on sex applies to hostile work environment based on age.  They also noted that courts and the standard must “evolve to reflect changes in societal attitudes towards what is acceptable behavior in the workplace.”  This is an important reminder that while conduct may not have met the severe or pervasive standard 20 years ago, it may meet that standard now.  While the Court held that whether conduct meets that standard is usually a jury question, it is not always; and, in fact, the Minnesota Supreme Court affirmed dismissal of the hostile work environment claim based on age.

Second, the Court also addressed a claim of age-based disparate-treatment, analyzing whether the plaintiff met her prima facie case of discrimination when she quit. To show a prima facie case of discrimination, a plaintiff must meet the standard announced in McDonnell Douglas, that she is a member of a protected class, that she suffered an adverse employment action, that she met her performance expectations, and that she was treated differently from those not members of the protected class. In Henry, the parties disputed whether Plaintiff’s resignation was constructive discharge when she resigned, thus whether she met the adverse employment action requirement.  The Court affirmed prior precedent in holding whether working conditions are intolerable is an objective one. evaluating when a reasonable person would have felt compelled to resign.  However, the Court held that just because the plaintiff’s claim for hostile work environment failed does not mean there isn’t an intolerable working environment.  The court reasoned:

A disparate treatment claim is based on differential treatment due to a plaintiff’s protected status, while a hostile work environment claim is based on harassing conduct due to a plaintiff’s protected status. . . . Accordingly, though plaintiffs alleging constructive discharge based on disparate treatment or hostile work environment must always demonstrate working conditions that warrant quitting, the discriminatory workplace conduct that catalyzes resignation will differ depending on the underlying theory because the theories aim to address different forms of discrimination.

. . .

Thus, we hold that the objectively intolerable conditions necessary to support a constructive discharge based on disparate treatment are not necessarily the same as those required to support a constructive discharge based on a hostile work environment. . . .  In other words, a disparate-treatment-based constructive discharge can occur where, due to the employer’s illegal discrimination in the form of unfavorable treatment based on the employee’s protected status, “the handwriting [is] on the wall and the axe was about to fall.”

The Court did adopt the employer-intent requirement, requiring a plaintiff show the employer intended to make the employee quit.  However, the Court held that an employee is not required to notify the employer of the intolerable conditions, resulting in no mitigation requirement.  Once again, the court emphasized it is an objective requirement—whether a reasonable person would quit.  Under the facts of the case, Ms. Henry’s constructive discharge claim survived the defense’s motion for summary judgment.

Third, the Minnesota Supreme Court then discussed the Court of Appeals’ suggestion that an employee can establish an adverse employment action based on “the cumulative evidence submitted.”  The Court reasoned that “[t]his theory would permit plaintiffs to establish an adverse employment action based on the aggregation of discrete acts that would not otherwise amount to a constructive discharge or would not otherwise be actionable if considered in isolation.”  The Court “decline[d] to adopt the . . . expansion of ‘the concept of an adverse employment action’ under the Human Rights Act.”  As a result, the Court dismissed that theory advanced by the plaintiff.

Bottom Line

Employers in Minnesota should take note of the Court’s decision to avoid claims of discrimination and hostile work environment under the MHRA.