This opinion will be unpublished and
may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2000).
STATE OF MINNESOTA
IN COURT OF APPEALS
Marguerite Anderson-Johanningmeier, et al.,
Mid-Minnesota Women’s Center, Inc., et al.,
Filed December 26, 2000
Crow Wing County District Court
File No. C0961714
Judith K. Schermer, Schermer & Guy PLLP, 950 Lumber Exchange Building, 10 South Fifth Street, Minneapolis, MN 55402 (for appellants)
Kay Nord Hunt, Stephen C. Rathke, Lommen, Nelson, Cole & Stageberg, P.A., 1800 IDS Center, 80 South Eighth Street, Minneapolis, MN 55402 (for respondents)
Considered and decided by Randall, Presiding Judge, Crippen, Judge, and Kalitowski, Judge.
U N P U B L I S H E D O P I N I O N
Appellants Marguerite Anderson-Johanningmeier, et al., challenge the district court’s grant of JNOV arguing the district court erred as a matter of law when it determined that employees who reported a violation of the wage-and-hour statutes were not protected by the Minnesota whistleblower law. Appellants also challenge the district court’s determination that they were not discriminated against based on religion, sexual orientation, or marital status under the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA) and that they were not subjected to retaliatory discrimination. We affirm.
A district court may grant JNOV when the verdict is against the overwhelming evidence so “that reasonable minds cannot differ as to the proper outcome.” Lamb v. Jordan, 333 N.W.2d 852, 855 (Minn. 1983) (quotation omitted). All evidence must be reviewed in a light most favorable to the verdict, and a “court may not weigh the evidence or judge the credibility of the witnesses.” Id. (citation omitted). The granting of JNOV is purely a question of law, and the district court’s decision is reviewed de novo. Krutsch v. Walter H. Collin GmBh, 495 N.W.2d 208, 211 (Minn. App. 1993), review denied (Minn. Mar. 22, 1993).
Appellants contend the district court erred in ruling that as a matter of law their conduct was not protected by the Minnesota whistleblower statute. The statute prohibits an employer from discharging or penalizing an employee who
in good faith, reports a violation or suspected violation of any federal or state law or rule adopted pursuant to law to an employer or to any governmental body or law enforcement official.
Minn. Stat. § 181.932, subd. 1(a) (1998). Whether appellants made a good-faith “report” is a question of fact, but “this court may determine as a matter of law that certain conduct does not constitute a report.” Rothmeier v. Inv. Advisers, Inc., 556 N.W.2d 590, 593 (Minn. App. 1996) (quotation omitted), review denied (Minn. Feb. 26, 1997). A report under the whistleblower statute must implicate public policy. Donahue v. Schwegman, Lundberg, Woessner & Kluth, P.A., 586 N.W.2d 811, 814-15 (Minn. App. 1998).
The district court, citing Donahue, determined that appellants were not entitled to protection under the whistleblower statute because their report did not implicate public policy. We agree. In Donahue the employee argued that the law firm’s payroll deduction practice violated Minn. Stat. § 181.79, subd. 1 (1996), and, “because all statutes are designed to protect the public, her report involved the public interest.” Id. at 814 (citation omitted). This court disagreed, holding that while the employee’s report “involved more than a personal interest,” it had “an internal impact only” and did “not raise public interest concerns.” Id. at 815 (citations omitted).
Similarly, appellants here argue that their employer’s initial refusal to pay a co-employee the vacation pay owed to her after she resigned was a violation of the wage-and-hour statutes and that appellants’ report of this violation protects the public interest. We disagree. As in Donahue, a report regarding an employee’s entitlement to pay has an internal impact only and does not raise public-interest concerns. Because appellants did not demonstrate that their report implicates public policy, we conclude the district court’s grant of JNOV in favor of respondent on appellants’ whistleblower claim was proper.
Appellants contend that the evidence does not support the district court’s judgment in favor of respondent on their MHRA claims. On appeal from a judgment where no motion for a new trial is made, this court considers “whether the evidence is sufficient to support the [district court’s] findings, and whether the findings support the [district] court’s conclusions of law.” Comstock & Davis, Inc. v. G.D.S. & Assocs., 481 N.W.2d 82, 84 (Minn. App. 1992) (citation omitted).
Under the MHRA, an employer may not discharge or discriminate against an employee with respect to terms and conditions of employment based on religion, sexual orientation, or marital status. Minn. Stat. § 363.03, subd. 1(2)(b), (c) (1998). To determine whether a violation has occurred, Minnesota courts employ the three-part test established in McDonnell-Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 93 S. Ct. 1817 (1973). Fletcher v. St. Paul Pioneer Press, 589 N.W.2d 96, 101 (Minn. 1999).
Appellants claim there was insufficient evidence in the record to support the district court’s conclusion of no discrimination. We disagree. The district court heard a great deal of conflicting testimony regarding tensions and conflict between appellants and their supervisor, the director of the center. Testimony at trial indicated that a number of employees supported the director and did not perceive what appellants alleged to be anti-heterosexual or anti-marriage attitudes. Additionally, appellants do not challenge the finding that they criticized the director and asked for her termination or suspension. Thus, the evidence in the record supports the district court’s finding that appellants were terminated for the legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons of increased tensions and conflict between appellants and the director and that finding supports the conclusion of no discrimination.
Appellants also claim the district court erred in failing to conclude that the evidence required a finding of a hostile work environment based on religion, sexual orientation, and marital status. We disagree. Separate from the question of whether Minnesota should recognize such claims is whether appellants have demonstrated a prima facie case. Appellants’ burden is to show, among other elements, that they were “subjected to unwelcome harassment which had the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with the terms, conditions, or privileges of [their] employment.” Williams v. Metropolitan Waste Control Comm’n, 781 F. Supp. 1424, 1426 (D. Minn. 1992) (citations omitted).
Whether harassment is sufficiently severe to constitute discrimination must be determined based on the totality of the circumstances, including examination of the “nature, frequency, intensity, location, context, duration, and object or target” of the conduct. Klink v. Ramsey County by Zacharias, 397 N.W.2d 894, 901 (Minn. App. 1986) (addressing sexual harassment) (citation omitted), review denied (Minn. Feb. 13, 1987), rev’d on other grounds, 568 N.W.2d 418, 424 (Minn. 1997) (holding not every sexual comment creates an action, and foul language and vulgar behavior do not rise to the level of sexual harassment); Faragher v. City of Boca Raton, 524 U.S. 775, 788, 118 S. Ct. 2275, 2284 (1998) (holding “conduct must be extreme to amount to a change in the terms and conditions of employment”).
The district court noted the frequency, intensity, location, and the context of the alleged harassment and found that
* * * [appellants] perceived the work environment as hostile, offensive and intimidating, however, said perception of the environment was not a result of discrimination because of their religion or sexual preference, but was a result of their reaction to [the director’s] management style and decision-making style. [The director’s] comments were occasionally insensitive, but were not so severe or pervasive so as to create a hostile work environment.
The evidence in the record supports this finding, which in turn supports the court’s conclusion that appellants failed to establish a prima facie case of sexual orientation, marital status, and religious harassment.
Finally, appellants assert the district court ignored evidence regarding the retaliation against appellants after they sent letters of complaint to the board and the director. The MHRA prohibits intentional reprisal against an employee who has engaged in protected activity, including filing a discrimination complaint. Minn. Stat. § 363.03, subd. 7 (1998). To establish a prima facie case of discriminatory reprisal, appellants must show by a preponderance of the evidence that: (1) they engaged in statutorily protected conduct; (2) respondent engaged in adverse employment action; and (3) a causal connection existed between the two. Hubbard v. United Press Int’l, Inc., 330 N.W.2d 428, 444 (Minn. 1983).
Here, the district court found that appellants were terminated, not for engaging in statutorily protected conduct, but because of the tension and conflict created by appellants’ requests for the director’s removal and complaints about her management style. The record supports this finding and the court’s findings support its conclusion that there was no retaliation.