The parties in a pregnancy-discrimination case under the Minnesota Human Rights Act will have another crack at establishing a factual record, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled on April 5. But the employer’s level of happiness about the employee’s pregnancy won’t be part of it.
The court in a 4-2 opinion said a plaintiff establishes sex discrimination under a disparate treatment theory if she shows that pregnancy “actually motivated” the challenged employment decision.
But the court was not convinced that the district court made its findings using the correct law under the MHRA and so remanded the case, LaPoint v. Family Orthodontics.
“LaPoint was required to prove that her pregnancy ‘actually motivated’ Family Orthodontics’ decision not to hire her…. LaPoint was not required to prove that [the defendant] was hostile to LaPoint’s pregnancy in order for her to prevail.…We are uncertain whether the district court would have made the same findings if it had applied the correct law regarding animus,” the court said.
Family Orthodontic’s attorney, Marshall Tanick, did not dispute the ‘actual motivation’ standard and said that had been his client’s position all along. “We are hopeful and confident that the issue of lack of animus did not color the District Court’s decision. We think the judge will reach the same conclusion on remand.”
It is good to have the dispute over the standard for discrimination clarified, as some defense attorneys cling to the “but for” causation standard, said plaintiff’s attorney Steven A. Smith. That said, he agrees with the dissent, Smith continued. “The dissent is 100 percent right,” he said.
The dissent said that the District Court’s findings established that a job offer to the plaintiff was rescinded because she hadn’t told the defendant she was pregnant and that was discriminatory.
Chief Justice Lorie Gildea wrote the opinion, from which Justices Margaret Chutich and Anne McKeig dissented. Justice David Lillehaug recused.
The defendant clinic is owned by Dr. Angela Ross. Ross interviewed Nicole LaPoint for a job as an orthodontic assistant and subsequently offered her a job, which LaPoint accepted. When LaPoint accepted the job, she told Ross she was pregnant and due to deliver in about six months. She told Ross she planned to return to work after the birth. Ross asked her how long a leave she had taken with her first child and LaPoint said 12 weeks. Ross said her policy was a six-week leave, which LaPoint said she would consider.
Ross wrote “Due 10/13! Pregnant?!” on LaPoint’s resume. She then rescinded the job offer, stating it was because LaPoint had not told her of the pregnancy during the interview and because the 12-week leave would disrupt her practice. She repeated those reasons in an email.
In a court trial, the judge accepted the defendant’s explanation that she was motivated by the length of the leave and the disruption to her practice and found that plaintiff had not proved her claim.
The Court of Appeals reversed, saying that the evidence and the District Court’s findings showed a “specific link” between LaPoint’s pregnancy and the rescission of the job offer.
Standard is ‘actual motivation’
The correct legal standard is whether discrimination was a substantial causative factor in the employment decision, the Supreme Court said. It has never been the correct standard to say that the protected characteristic, in this case pregnancy, must be the “but for” cause of the employer’s conduct.
But the defendant argued that the Court of Appeals applied a new standard requiring only a specific link between the protected characteristic and the employer’s conduct. The plaintiff rebutted this argument, but the Supreme Court declined to rule on the interpretation of the Court of Appeals’ opinion, reiterating that “actual motivation” is the correct standard. Another way of phrasing the standard is to say that the protected characteristic was a “substantial causative factor” to the employment decision, the court continued.
“In other words, LaPoint need not prove that Family Orthodontics would have hired her absent unlawful discrimination in order to establish liability, and proof by the employer that it would have made the same decision absent a discriminatory motive is no defense,” Gildea wrote.
The standard established, the court turned to the District Court’s findings of fact. The Supreme Court explained, “The court of appeals found that ‘[t]aken as a whole, the evidence and the district court’s finding show a specific link between LaPoint’s pregnancy and the rescission of the job offer.’ (Cite omitted.) Two sentences later, the court of appeals stated that “[i]n the face of the robust affirmative evidence, the district court erred in concluding that LaPoint failed to prove that her pregnancy was a substantial causative factor in Family Orthodontics’ decision.’ Family Orthodontics argues that the court of appeals’ conclusion of discrimination can only be justified (under the correct legal standard) if the court engaged in appellate fact-finding and improperly disregarded the district court’s findings. LaPoint argues, in response, that the court of appeals merely relied on the district court’s findings of fact and correctly concluded that based on those findings, no reasonable fact-finder could have found that LaPoint’s pregnancy did not ‘actually motivate’ Family Orthodontics’ decision.”
The Supreme Court noted that the Court of Appeals did not find that any of the District Court’s findings of fact were clearly erroneous. The parties disagreed on what the findings meant to the court when deciding there was no causation.
“Family Orthodontics emphasizes that the district court found that the length of leave requested was the ‘overriding concern,’ or the ‘only one reason [that] truly factored into [the] decision’ and the ‘sole reason Dr. Ross declined to hire Plaintiff,’ and argues that the district court based these findings on Dr. Ross’s testimony, which the court found ‘highly credible,’” the Supreme Court wrote.
The court continued, “LaPoint, by contrast, argues that the court of appeals correctly based its decision on the district court’s factual findings…
“LaPoint argues that [the] evidence, which the district court credited, compels a finding that LaPoint’s failure to raise the issue of her pregnancy in the interview ‘actually motivated’ Dr. Ross’s decision (and, therefore, Family Orthodontics’ decision) to rescind the offer, and renders the district court’s finding that the length of leave requested was the ‘sole reason’ for the decision clearly erroneous.”
The Supreme Court then determined that there was reasonable evidence in the record to support the court’s findings. But the problem, the Supreme Court continued, was that the court repeatedly refuted the argument that Family Orthodontics might have rescinded the offer based on the pregnancy by explaining that Dr. Ross lacked anger or hostility about the pregnancy. The court may have incorrectly believed that animus was required for a finding of discrimination, which it is not, the court said.
It is unclear whether the court would have made the same findings of fact if it had applied the correct law, Gildea said. Therefore it remanded the case to determine if the District Court would have made the same findings if it had applied the correct law regarding animus.
The dissenting opinion, written by Chutich, said that the District Court’s findings show that LaPoint’s choice not to reveal her pregnancy before receiving a job offer actually motivated Family Orthodontics’ decision to rescind its offer in violation of the MHRA. Agreeing that the District Court misapplied the law, the dissent would affirm the Court of Appeals.
“Dr. Ross was not entitled to have a discussion about pregnancy with LaPoint at the job interview for any reason; nor could she hold the lack of disclosure against LaPoint. What matters is that the lack of disclosure ‘actually played a role’ in Dr. Ross’s decision to rescind the job offer,” Chutich wrote.