Morrie’s 394 Hyundai must pay $200,000 in damages to a former employee who said she was fired for reporting gender discrimination in the workplace and using sick leave time to care for an ill child.
A jury found that the auto dealership in St. Louis Park retaliated against Victoria McVey in violation of the Minnesota Human Rights Act and the Minnesota Parenting Leave and Accommodations Act. The jury in the trial before Hennepin County District Judge Susan Robiner did not find that the Morrie’s dealership discriminated against McVey because of her sex. The weeklong trial ended on Oct. 9.
McVey’s attorney, Amy Boyle of Halunen Law, said the verdict indicates that, generally speaking employers need to accommodate parents who take time off work to care for their children provided they’re within their personal sick leave benefits policy.
“It was clear by the jury’s verdict that they did not believe our client was required to find backup child care and could be the person to stay home with her son if she wanted or needed to,” Boyle said in an interview. “Because that was part of what the employer was upset about, was that she didn’t have more backup. But the law doesn’t require her to do that. Parents can stay home with their kids and that’s OK as long as they’re within the personal sick leave policy as required by the Minnesota Parenting Leave and Accommodations Act.”
“You can’t terminate an employee for using their personal sick leave benefits for taking time off of work to care for their child,” said Boyle. “It’s inconvenient when a kid gets sick and it’s inconvenient when an employee has to stay home, but as long as they’re within the personal sick leave benefits, within that policy the employee can do that and the employer can’t retaliate against them.”
McVey, who began working at the dealership in July 2016, was the only female parts counterperson and was regarded as a top performer, according to her complaint. She claimed she had more experience, having worked three years as a parts counterperson at a different Hyundai dealership, but saw male colleagues getting more opportunities. She also noticed that she got more scrutiny for taking paid time off from work to take care of her sick child than when men in the department called in sick or used a significant amount of vacation time.
“It was very clear through the testimony that they didn’t like that she was taking time off of work for unscheduled absences,” Boyle said. “I think the company had difficulty because they were a little understaffed. Our client had a son and she was essentially the only person who could take time off when he was sick. And he was 3 years old so he got sick relatively often. They didn’t like those unscheduled absences because it was difficult for them to cover the shifts, which is understandable. But ultimately it was very clear that they didn’t like her taking time off of work.”
McVey reported her concerns about a discriminatory work environment, saying she was a victim of “sexual discrimination,” to the human resources director in a meeting in January 2019, according to her complaint. The human resources director told her, “We don’t need to be throwing those words out there,” and changed the subject.
McVey alleged that Morrie’s did not investigate her discrimination report, in violation of the dealership’s policies and procedures.
When McVey met with the general manager and the human resources director in March 2019, the director told McVey that she was “abrasive” and “difficult to approach,” the complaint alleged. McVey was fired without notice and no prior reprimands a day after that meeting, her complaint said. Morrie’s replaced McVey as a parts counterperson two weeks later with a man who had worked with her at the other Hyundai dealership.
Testimony: Fired for complaint
“The general manager testified at trial that one of the reasons our client was terminated was because she complained about her boss,” Boyle said. “That was her protected report (required under the Minnesota Human Rights Act). You never know what the jury remembers from the trial or what pieces of evidence that they found particularly persuasive but that was one piece of testimony that seemed important. Then also during the termination meeting the HR director told her you weren’t on my radar until then. It suggests that there’s a connection.”
Jurors found that the Morrie’s dealership violated McVey’s rights under the state’s human rights and parenting law by retaliating against her and awarded the $200,000 in damages for lost back pay, future loss of earnings and emotional distress.
Morrie’s attorney, Jessica Schwie of Kennedy & Graven, could not be reached for comment. In Schwie’s answer, Morrie’s denied McVey’s allegations.
Schwie stated in documents that Morrie’s admitted that McVey referred to discrimination in her January 2019 meeting with the human resources director. But McVey did not provide specifics and instead “focused on being a mom, having no backup plan for when her child was sick or daycare was closed.” The dealership said that McVey was late or absent on several occasions from January 2019 through March 2019.
As an affirmative defense, Morrie’s contended that McVey could not establish that she was treated differently from male employees, employees who had made complaints under the human rights act or employees requesting parental leave and that she could not establish a cause between and alleged unlawful motive and her firing.
The case was one of the first to be tried in Hennepin County under precautions ordered because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Boyle said. The judge, jurors, attorneys and court staff wore masks; the only exception was for witnesses who were testifying. Three jurors were in the jury box, two were in front and two to the side, Boyle said, and the courtroom was marked for social distancing.
“The Court did a really excellent job of making sure things ran smoothly,” Boyle said. “Even though employment trials can often take a long time, I don’t think our trial took longer because of the COVID-related precautions. We were able to do everything we wanted or needed to in order to effectively try our case.”