In a case of first impression with potentially significant ramifications for employment law attorneys and their clients, the Minnesota Court of Appeals has revived an age-discrimination lawsuit brought by a now-retired Minneapolis police officer.
Writing for the three-judge panel, Appeals Court Judge Kevin Ross said Hennepin County Judge Frank Magill erred when he tossed out Scott Peterson’s discrimination claim on the grounds that Peterson failed to commence his action within the one-year statute of limitations prescribed by the Minnesota Human Rights Act.
But the Appeals Court concluded that an internal complaint Peterson filed with the city’s human resources department triggered the MHRA’s deadline-tolling provision, which stopped the clock on the statute of limitations. Under the language of the MHRA, that tolling kicks in when parties are “voluntarily engaged in a dispute resolution process involving a claim of unlawful discrimination.”
“Interpreting the MHRA’s tolling provision to hold that the city’s human resources investigation of Peterson’s age-discrimination complaint is a ‘dispute resolution process’ meets both the letter and the spirit of the act,” Ross wrote.
Impact on employers
While the MHRA does not define “dispute resolution process,” the term is followed by the words “including arbitration, conciliation, mediation or grievance.” The Appeals Court reasoned that because “including” is a term of enlargement, not restriction, other dispute resolution processes ought to be covered under MHRA. The court further held that Magill construed the meaning of the dispute resolution process too narrowly.
Susan Segal, the Minneapolis city attorney, said she is still reviewing the ruling for a possible petition to the Supreme Court. But if the decision stands, she said, it will have “quite a substantial impact on all employers in the state of Minnesota.”
In its brief, the city argued that its HR investigation shouldn’t be deemed “a dispute resolution process” because Peterson brought the complaint under a policy geared toward disciplining wrongdoers, not providing remedies for wronged parties.
But the Appeals Court didn’t buy that distinction.
“The statute’s tolling provision with its multiple dispute resolution examples evinces the legislature’s intent to encourage claimants to vet their discrimination claims in nonjudicial forums without forfeiting their option to file an MHRA lawsuit,” Ross wrote.
According to court records, Peterson filed his initial discrimination complaint with the city in November 2011 about a month after he was transferred out of the MPD’s Violent Offender Task Force to its licensing unit. That transfer was a de facto demotion, he asserted, because he lost out on overtime and other benefits, such a take-home police car, which were available to him as a member of the task force.
Peterson, who was 54 at the time, alleged that he was booted from the task force because of his age and that constituted a violation of the city’s HR policy at the time, which was known as “the Respect in the Workplace Policy.” More than a year later, in January of 2013, the HR department came back with a finding of no discrimination.
Peterson filed another complaint with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, but before that complaint was resolved, he sued in Hennepin County District Court. Judge Magill dismissed the suit on summary judgment as untimely.
Marshall Tanick, an employment law attorney at Hellmuth & Johnson PLLC who represents workers, said the Appeals Court made the right decision.
“It expands the interpretation of ‘a dispute resolution process,’ and I think that serves the interest of both employees and employer,” said Tanick. “Most employers don’t have these formal systems like arbitration and mediation, so when an employee files a complaint with an HR department the process can take months.”
And because no lawyers want to risk losing a good case by blowing the MHRA’s statute of limitations, Tanick said, that ticking clock can be an incentive for them to commence court actions prematurely.
“This decision gives both sides a chance to resolve claims in a calmer environment, without the urgency of statute of limitations,” Tanick said.
Susan Ellingstad, a partner at Lockridge Grindal Nauen who represents employers, offered a contrary take.
“I disagree with the court’s reasoning. I think it defies the plain meaning of the terms to equate a complaint process with a dispute resolution process,” said Ellingstad, adding that she doubts the decision would survive an appeal.
But if the city doesn’t appeal — or if its appeal fails — Ellingstad said employers could always turn to the Legislature to clarify the language of the MHRA.
“I think certainly it would be an easy legislative fix,” she said.
Peterson’s attorney, Erik Hansen of Burns & Hansen, P.A., did not return a call seeking comment on the ruling.