This opinion will be unpublished and

may not be cited except as provided by

Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (1998).






Barbara Hamlin,





Super 8 Motel of Fosston, Inc.,



Filed May 16, 2000


Harten, Judge


Office of Administrative Hearings

for Department of Human Rights

No. 3-1700-11609-2


Clair E. Schaff, Connor, Satre & Schaff, L.L.P., 925 Lumber Exchange Building, 10 South Fifth Street, Minneapolis, MN  55402 (for respondent)


Richard C. Mollin, Jr., 108 2nd Street Northwest, Fosston, MN  56542  (for relator)


            Considered and decided by Halbrooks, Presiding Judge, Harten, Judge, and Willis, Judge.    

U N P U B L I S H E D  O P I N I O N


            Respondent Super 8 of Fosston, Inc. (Super 8) challenges by writ of certiorari a determination by the Office of Administrative Hearings for the Department of Human Rights that Super 8 engaged in racial discrimination by failing to hire appellant Barbara Hamlin.  Super 8 contends that the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) erred or abused his discretion by (1) making factual findings not supported by the evidence, (2) determining that Super 8 engaged in discriminatory refusal to hire, (3) denying Super 8’s post-hearing motion to introduce additional evidence of Hamlin’s social security disability income benefits, (4) limiting the cross-examination of Hamlin, and (5) awarding punitive damages and attorney fees.  We affirm.



            Relator Super 8 of Fosston, Minnesota, (Super 8) placed ads in a local newspaper to fill specific job openings and to build a pool of potential employees.  Bob and Lora Saeter, owners and operators of Super 8, would jointly review completed applications and telephone applicants whom they were interested in hiring.  The Saeters would consider work experience, the neatness of the application, whether the application had been accurately and fully completed, and the applicant’s flexibility in working hours.

            Respondent Barbara Hamlin, who is half Native American, completed her first application in the Super 8 lobby on September 4, 1996, and handed it to Bob Saeter.  Hamlin filled out the entire application; she indicated she was seeking part-time or full-time work as a housekeeper and had work experience as a nurse’s aide, a housekeeper, and a press operator for a dry cleaner.  Hamlin called Lora Saeter at least twice to discuss the application’s status.  Lora Saeter told Hamlin that Super 8 required someone flexible; Hamlin assured her that she lived nearby and owned a reliable car.  Lora Saeter said that she would check on the application and get back to Hamlin, but never did so.

            Super 8 hired eleven people who applied about the same time as Hamlin.  Some had not completed their applications as fully as Hamlin; some had less experience and were less willing to work a flexible schedule. 

            In 1997, Super 8 again ran newspaper ads for front desk and housekeeping positions.  On August 22, 1997, Hamlin went to the motel and filled out another application, this time seeking front desk, housekeeping, or laundry work.  She recalled that Bob Saeter stared at her.  Hamlin completed the entire application and indicated her willingness to take part-time, full-time, or temporary work.  She listed her experience as a nurse’s aide and a press machine operator, but did not specifically identify “housekeeping” experience.

            Hamlin called Lora Saeter on at least two occasions to discuss her application.  Lora Saeter told Hamlin that they were seeking someone flexible and that they wanted to “give the other applicants a chance.”  Hamlin assured Saeter that she was qualified and emphasized that she needed the job.  Super 8 did not interview or hire Hamlin, but hired ten people who applied at about the same time.  Some of them had very little work experience.  Hamlin’s application indicated equal or more flexibility and work experience than the applications of those hired.

            Bob and Lora Saeter offered inconsistent reasons for Super 8’s failure to interview or hire Hamlin.  Bob Saeter could not identify anything on Hamlin’s applications that would have prevented Super 8 from hiring her and testified that she was not hired in 1996 because others were equally or better qualified.  In their depositions, both Saeters asserted that Super 8 did not hire Hamlin in 1997 because she was less qualified than other applicants, but at the hearing, both testified that Super 8 did not hire Hamlin in 1997 because of her persistent telephone calls to Lora Saeter about her 1996 application.

            Hamlin filed a charge with the Department of Human Rights and a complaint with the Office of Administrative Hearings.  Following a hearing, the ALJ determined that Hamlin had established a prima facie case of discriminatory refusal to hire and that the reasons offered by Super 8 for not hiring Hamlin were pretextual.  The ALJ awarded Hamlin $21,740 in lost wages, $1,500 for mental suffering, and $1,500 in punitive damages, and assessed a $3,000 civil penalty; a successor ALJ awarded Hamlin litigation costs and attorney fees of $35,471.25.  Super 8’s motion for rehearing or reconsideration was denied.  This appeal followed.


1.         The ALJ’s Factual Findings

            This court affords great deference to administrative factfinding.  Hough Transit, Ltd. v. Harig, 373 N.W.2d 327, 333 (Minn. App. 1985).  The findings must be viewed in the light most favorable to the decision and cannot be disturbed where the evidence reasonably supports them.  Booher v. Transport Clearings of Twin Cities, Inc., 260 N.W.2d 181, 183 (Minn. 1977).

The ALJ found that Super 8 failed to provide a comparative analysis of the applicants hired instead of Hamlin.  Super 8 submitted a summary of employee qualifications with its post-hearing brief, but the summary simply labels employees as more or less qualified than Hamlin without offering any substantive basis for those labels.  Moreover, the summary is inconsistent with other information Super 8 presented.  The ALJ did not clearly err in finding that Super 8 failed to supply a credible comparative analysis. 

            The ALJ found that Hamlin’s 1996 application indicated that she had more experience than some of the hired applicants.  Even if this application exaggerated the amount of Hamlin’s housekeeping experience, her actual work experience was still superior to that of some hired 1996 applicants who had no housekeeping experience.[1]  Evidence supports the finding that Hamlin was more qualified than some of the hired 1996 applicants.

            The ALJ also found that Hamlin’s qualifications equaled the average qualifications of the hired 1997 applicants.  Some had only office experience or little prior work experience of any kind; most wanted only part-time or only full-time work.  The record supports the ALJ’s finding.

            Nor did the ALJ err by considering the 1997 applications.  The ALJ initially ruled that the 1997 applications were irrelevant but revisited the issue after Hamlin  impeached the Saeters’ testimony as to why she was not hired in 1997.  When Hamlin had established that Super 8’s reason might have been pretextual, the ALJ granted the parties leave to compare the 1997 applications in their post-hearing briefs.  The ALJ’s consideration of the 1997 applications did not conflict with any rulings.[2] 

            The ALJ disbelieved Bob Saeter’s testimony that he was unaware of Hamlin’s race.  Assessments of witness credibility are “peculiarly within the province of the factfinder.”  Eden Park Apartments v. Weston, 529 N.W.2d 732, 734 (Minn. App. 1995).  When the record contains conflicting evidence or evidence that will support more than one inference, this court will uphold the ALJ’s factual findings.  State by Cooper v. Moorhead State Univ., 455 N.W.2d 79, 82 (Minn. App. 1990).  The record shows that Bob Saeter had encountered Hamlin in his capacities as a Fosston schoolteacher, as the parent of a child the same age as Hamlin’s child, and as the owner of the mobile home park where Hamlin’s daughter lived.  The ALJ’s finding that Saeter knew of Hamlin’s race is supported by ample evidence.

2.         Evidence of Discrimination

            Minnesota uses the three-part McDonnell-Douglas test to assess a discriminatory refusal to hire case.  Sigurdson v. Isanti County, 386 N.W.2d 715, 720 (Minn. 1986).  First, the plaintiff must establish a prima facie case of discriminatory refusal to hire.  Id.  Second, the employer must present evidence of a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its actions.  Id.  Third, the plaintiff must demonstrate that the employer’s proffered reasons are actually a pretext for discrimination, showing by a preponderance of the evidence either “that it is more likely the defendant was racially motivated or that the defendant’s proffered explanation is unworthy of credence.”  Shockency v. Jefferson Lines, 439 N.W.2d 715, 719 (Minn. 1989) (quotation omitted).

            The ALJ found that Hamlin had established a prima facie case of refusal to hire by showing that (1) she is a member of a protected group; (2) she sought and was qualified for an opportunity that Super 8 made available to others; (3) despite her qualifications, she was denied the opportunity; and (4) the opportunity remained available or was given to other persons with her qualifications.  See Butler v. Leadens Investigations & Sec., Inc., 503 N.W.2d 805, 808 (Minn. App. 1993), review denied (Minn. Sept. 30, 1993) (giving elements of prima facie case of refusal to hire).  After Super 8 failed to support its claim that the other 1996 applicants were more qualified than Hamlin, and the Saeters changed their explanation for why Super 8 did not hire her in 1997, the ALJ rejected Super 8’s reasons as pretextual.  An employer’s change in reason for refusing to hire a qualified applicant can constitute proof of pretext.  MacDissi v. Valmont Indus., Inc., 856 F.2d 1054, 1059 (8th Cir. 1988).   

            When a plaintiff has established a prima facie case of discrimination and the factfinder disbelieves an employer’s reasons for its actions, there may be a sufficient showing of intentional discrimination.  Gaworski v. ITT Commercial Fin. Corp., 17 F.3d 1104, 1109 (8th Cir. 1993) (citing St. Mary’s Honor Ctr. v. Hicks, 509 U.S. 502, 511, 113 S. Ct. 2742, 2749 (1993)).  Matters of credibility are for the factfinder.  We conclude that the ALJ’s findings are sufficient to support the determination of discrimination.[3]

3.         Evidence of Hamlin’s SSDI Benefits

            Evidentiary rulings are within the discretion of the trial court and will not be reversed unless there has been an abuse of discretion.  Jenson v. Touche Ross & Co., 335 N.W.2d 720, 725 (Minn. 1983).  A complaining party must demonstrate prejudicial error in order to obtain a new trial on the grounds of improper evidentiary rulings.  Uselman v. Uselman, 464 N.W.2d 130, 138 (Minn. 1990).

            The ALJ denied Super 8’s motion to include evidence of the Social Security Administration (SSA) determination that Hamlin was “totally disabled” for purposes of receiving Social Security Disability Income (SSDI) benefits.  But this determination did not mean that Hamlin was “not qualified to work” within the context of an employment discrimination claim.  See Cleveland v. Policy Mgmt. Systems Corp., 526 U.S. 795, 803-05, 119 S. Ct. 1597, 1602-03 (1999) (refusing to adopt a rule that an individual who has applied for SSDI benefits cannot also be a “qualified individual” for purposes of bringing a claim under the Americans With Disabilities Act because the SSA’s disability determination may involve presumptions irrelevant to the actual ability to work; holding that the SSA may facilitate an individual’s reentry into the job market by paying benefits after the individual improves enough to begin working).[4]  

            To establish her prima facie case of discriminatory refusal to hire, Hamlin needed to show only that she met the minimum objective qualifications for the job.  She testified that she believed herself able to perform housekeeping chores.  See Legrand v. Trustees of Univ. of Ark., 821 F.2d 478, 481 (8th Cir. 1987) (holding that meeting minimum objective job qualifications is an element of a prima facie case of a discriminatory refusal to hire claim).  Hamlin’s concurrent receipt of SSDI benefits when she applied at Super 8 was not an automatic bar to her claim.

            To argue that the ALJ should have offset Hamlin’s disability benefits from the backpay award, Super 8 relies on Robertson v. Special Sch. Dist. No. 1, 347 N.W.2d 265 (Minn. 1984) (permitting deduction of unemployment compensation from backpay award made pursuant to Veterans Preference Act) and Mrkonjich v. Erie Mining Co., 334 N.W.2d 378 (Minn. 1983) (acknowledging propriety of offsetting award of backpay under collective bargaining agreement from unemployment compensation benefits).  But these cases are distinguishable; neither involves backpay awards made under Title VII or the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA).

            As a general rule, in interpreting the MHRA, we give strong weight to federal court interpretations of Title VII claims.  See, e.g., Danz v. Jones, 263 N.W.2d 395, 398-99 (Minn. 1978).  Federal courts have declined to deduct unemployment benefits from backpay awards.  See, e.g., Gaworski v. ITT Commercial Fin. Corp., 17 F.3d 1104, 1112-13 (8th Cir. 1994) (holding that under collateral source rule, social security and unemployment benefits are not deducted from ADEA awards); Johnston v. Harris County Flood Control Dist., 869 F.2d 1565, 1581 (5th Cir. 1989) (“We conclude that the district court also may exercise its discretion in deciding whether to deduct social security disability benefits from back pay awards.”).   

            We see no abuse of discretion in the exclusion of evidence of Hamlin’s SSDI benefits.

4.         ALJ’s Limitations on Cross-Examination

            Limiting the scope of cross-examination is within the trial court’s discretion and is subject to reversal only for abuse of that discretion.  Brunsoman v. Lexington-Silverwood, 385 N.W.2d 823, 827 (Minn. App. 1986), review denied (Minn. June 13, 1986).  After reviewing the hearing transcript, we conclude that the ALJ did not prevent Super 8 from inquiring into key factual matters or asking questions that established the existence of Hamlin’s inconsistent testimony.  To prevent the cross-examination from deteriorating into witness harassment, the ALJ directed Super 8 to make arguments about Hamlin’s allegedly inconsistent statements in its closing brief.  We see no abuse of discretion.

5.         Punitive Damages and Fee Awards

            a.         Punitive Damages

            An award of damages for human rights violations is committed to the court’s sound discretion and will not be set aside unless clearly erroneous.  Kohn v. City of Minneapolis Fire Dep’t, 583 N.W.2d 7, 14 (Minn. App. 1998), review denied (Minn. Oct. 20, 1998). 

            Minn. Stat. § 549.20, subd. 1(a) (1998) provides for a punitive damages award “only upon clear and convincing evidence that the acts of the defendant show deliberate disregard for the rights or safety of others.”  In awarding punitive damages, a court should consider the duration of the misconduct, the defendant’s awareness of the misconduct, the defendant’s attitude and conduct upon discovering the misconduct, and the defendant’s financial position.  Minn. Stat. § 549.20, subd. 3 (1998).  Minn. Stat. § 363.071, subd. 2 (1998) permits punitive damages awards of not more than $8,500 “pursuant to section 549.20.”

            Super 8 raises two challenges to the punitive damages award.  First, Super 8 contends that Hamlin’s failure to amend her complaint to include a punitive damages claim pursuant to Minn. Stat. § 549.191 (1998) precludes the award.  But a plaintiff does not forfeit a punitive damages award under the MHRA by failing to meet the motion requirements of section 549.191.  Bougie v. Sibley Manor, Inc., 504 N.W.2d 499, 496 (Minn. App. 1993) (refusing to vacate punitive damages award despite lack of compliance with section 549.191); see also Daines v. City of Mankato, 754 F. Supp. 681, 704 (D. Minn. 1990) (holding that the Minnesota legislature did not implicitly include the motion requirements of section 549.191 when it expressly incorporated the punitive damages standards of section 549.20).

            Second, Super 8 contends that the ALJ did not make sufficient findings concerning Super 8’s financial condition.  The ALJ found that in 1997, Super 8 had gross sales of $268,940 and total assets of $620,103.  The minimal punitive damage award of $1,500 is commensurate with Super 8’s ability to pay.  See Rosenbloom v. Flygare, 501 N.W.2d 597, 602 (Minn. 1993) (holding that punitive damages award must fall within a “realistic appraisal of [a defendant’s] ability to pay”).[5]

            b.         Attorney Fees


            An award of attorney fees under the MHRA is subject to reversal or modification only if it constitutes an abuse of discretion.  Gillson v. State Dep’t of Nat’l Resources, 492 N.W.2d 835, 843 (Minn. App. 1992), review denied (Minn. Jan. 28, 1993).  The MHRA allows for an award of reasonable attorney fees to “an aggrieved party * * * who has suffered discrimination.”  Minn. Stat. § 363.071, subd. 2 (1998). To calculate attorney fees under this analysis, the court must multiply reasonable hours expended by a reasonable hourly rate.  Anderson v. Hunter, Keith, Marshall & Co., 417 N.W.2d 619, 628 (Minn. 1988) (citing Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433, 103 S. Ct. 1933, 1939 (1983)).

Hamlin requested $39,094.36 in fees and costs; the ALJ awarded $35,471.25 based on her counsel’s current rate of $200 per hour.  The ALJ’s reduction reflects a finding that prior to June 1, 1998, Hamlin’s counsel’s hourly rate was $150, not the current $200, a determination that counsel’s travel time rate was only $100, and disallowances of the total billable hours claims for drafting the complaint and of travel and photocopy costs.[6] 

In light of the ALJ’s detailed analysis of the requested attorney fees, we conclude that the award of attorney fees was not an abuse of discretion.


[1] A claimant’s misrepresentation on an application can bar recovery on a claim of discriminatory discharge or failure to hire.  Frey v. Ramsey County Comm. Human Servs., 517 N.W.2d 591, 597 (Minn. App. 1994).  But the employer bears the burden of proving that it would not have hired the individual had it known of the misrepresentation.  Welch v. Liberty Mach. Works, Inc., 23 F.3d 1403, 1405 (8th Cir. 1994), rev’d on other grounds, 99 F.3d 1144 (8th Cir. 1996).  Super 8 has not attempted to show that it would have refused to hire Hamlin had it known of inaccuracies on her job application.

[2] Super 8 alleges error in a number of the ALJ’s other factual findings.  These claims are without merit; they concern only minor, immaterial inaccuracies.   

[3] Super 8 argues that Hamlin failed to meet her ultimate burden because she did not provide direct evidence that the Saeters harbored a discriminatory motive.  This argument ignores the purpose of the McDonnell-Douglas test:  assessing a  discriminatory treatment claim in the absence of direct evidence.  See Texas Dep’t of Community Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248, 254, 101 S. Ct. 1089, 1094 n.8 (1981).

[4] Super 8 argues that Hamlin’s disability status is different because her benefits are disability based rather than income based.  But see 20 C.F.R. § 416.905(a) (1999) (SSI) and 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a) (1999) (social security disability) (defining “disabled adult” in the same way). 

[5] Super 8 argues that Hamlin’s failure to seek alternative employment should reduce her compensatory damages.  Our review of the record shows that Hamlin worked sporadically at a number of jobs.  The ALJ properly reduced her backpay award by wages she earned from those jobs.

[6] The ALJ properly rejected respondent’s argument that the attorney fee award should be limited by the contingency fee contract between Hamlin and her counsel, since the contract contemplated the possibility of a statutory fee award.