This opinion will be unpublished and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
Filed February 5, 2001
Anoka County District Court
File No. C4995677
John J. Curi, Neil P. Thompson, Attorneys at Law, 2249 East 38th St., Minneapolis, MN 55407 (for appellant)
John M. Anderson, Charles E. Lundberg, Bassford, Lockhart, Truesdell & Briggs, P.A., 3550 Multifoods Tower, 33 South Sixth Street, Minneapolis, MN 55402 (for respondent)
Considered and decided by Kalitowski, Presiding Judge, Lansing, Judge, Hanson, Judge.
U N P U B L I S H E D O P I N I O N
Onan Corporation terminated Nicolae Hantu's employment for workplace misconduct. Hantu sued Onan, alleging that the termination was a reprisal for filing discrimination and workers' compensation claims. Following trial, the district court found that Hantu failed to present credible evidence that his termination was a reprisal for engaging in protected conduct under the Minnesota Human Rights Act or the Workers' Compensation Act and entered judgment for Onan Corporation. Hantu moved for amended findings or, alternatively, a new trial. The district court denied the posttrial motions, and Hantu appeals.
F A C T S
Nicolae Hantu began work for Onan Corporation in 1993 as a sheet-metal machine operator. Effective January 1, 1998, Onan Corporation reclassified all hourly positions in its plant, and Hantu's job classification changed to "Fabrication I, Skill Block I" in the sheet-metal department. Hantu was dissatisfied with the classification and approached his supervisor to request an increase in pay and skill block. His supervisor, who was newly assigned to the department, told Hantu that he would not raise anyone's hourly wage until he understood the “lay of the land”.
On March 15, 1998, Hantu chipped his tooth while at work and, the following morning, obtained medical treatment before reporting the injury. Because failing to report a workplace injury before obtaining medical treatment violated Onan's written policy, Hantu received a written warning. As a consequence of the written warning, Hantu was disqualified from posting for any new positions for one year, thereby restricting his eligibility for reclassification to a different pay band. On April 30, 1998, Hantu filed a discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), claiming that Onan discriminated against him with respect to compensation based on his national origin.
On August 20, 1998, Hantu sustained a face injury while at work. Onan determined the injury resulted from incorrect handling of sheet metal and issued a second formal discipline, a final written warning, on August 26, 1998. As a consequence of the final written warning, Hantu was suspended from work for three days and excluded from any promotions for two years. On the same day he received the final written warning, Hantu filed a second EEOC complaint claiming Onan had taken disciplinary measures against him as reprisal for filing his first EEOC complaint.
In October 1998, a coworker reported that Hantu had violated Onan's "Treatment of Others at Work" policy by calling him a "moron." During the investigation, Hantu was admonished that name-calling was not acceptable. He was also told that because employees' complaints are confidential, he should not attempt to determine who had made the complaint. Hantu broke the confidentiality policy by attempting to determine from coemployees the name of the person who had reported him. As a result of this violation, Onan issued a second final written warning to Hantu on November 23, 1998. Hantu was informed that a further violation of any company policy would result in suspension followed by immediate termination of employment.
On November 10, 1998, Hantu sustained a third work-related injury and made a claim for workers' compensation benefits. About November 30, 1998, one of Onan's vendors for temporary labor informed Onan that Hantu had threatened its employee. Onan conducted an investigation, during which it suspended Hantu for three days. After concluding that Hantu had physically threatened the temporary employee, Onan terminated Hantu's employment effective December 3, 1998.
Hantu and Onan negotiated a settlement of Hantu's workers' compensation claim. On February 11, 2000, in exchange for $38,000, Hantu released all claims against Onan under the Workers' Compensation Act. In the settlement agreement Hantu stipulated that he released Onan “for all known work injuries and specifically as a result of the work injury of November 10, 1998”.
Following the trial, the district court judge made detailed findings of fact and conclusions of law. The court found that Onan terminated Hantu following four written warnings for four separate instances of misconduct. The court further found that, although Hantu had engaged in statutorily protected conduct when he filed his discrimination and workers' compensation claims, he had failed to establish by a preponderance of the evidence any causal connection between the filing of the claims and his employment termination. The district court also found that Hantu relinquished any claim under the Workers' Compensation Act in his February 11, 2000, release.
Hantu moved, alternatively, for a new trial or amended findings. The district court denied the posttrial motions. Hantu appeals, arguing that the district court (1) erred in evidentiary and procedural rulings, (2) erred in finding that his statutorily-protected conduct first began when he filed his April 1998 complaint, and (3) erred in finding no causal connection between the termination of his employment and his discrimination and workers' compensation complaints.
D E C I S I O N
The granting of a new trial rests largely within the discretion of the district court and reversal of the district court's decision is warranted only for a clear abuse of discretion. Jack Frost, Inc. v. Engineered Bldg. Components Co., Inc., 304 N.W.2d 346, 352 (Minn. 1981). Likewise, evidentiary and procedural rulings are committed to the sound discretion of the district court. Jenson v. Touche Ross & Co., 335 N.W.2d 720, 725 (Minn. 1983). The findings of a district court sitting without a jury will not be set aside unless clearly erroneous. Minn. R. Civ. P. 52.01. Due regard must be given to the opportunity of the district court to judge the credibility of witnesses. Northern States Power Co. v. Lyon Food Prods., Inc., 304 Minn. 196, 201, 229 N.W.2d 521, 524 (1975).
Hantu asserts three procedural errors by the district court that prejudiced his claims of unlawful reprisal: allowing Onan to amend its answer, failing to record Hantu's motions in limine, and failing to sequester the witnesses.
Hantu contends that the district court committed reversible error by allowing Onan to amend its answer to assert waiver and accord and satisfaction after Onan and Hantu signed the workers' compensation release. We disagree. Rule 15 permits the district court to allow amendment of an answer, “and leave shall be freely given when justice so requires.” Minn. R. Civ. P. 15.01. The amendment was necessary because the release was signed more than six months after service of the answer. Hantu could not have been surprised by the motion because he had been fully involved in the negotiation and could reasonably anticipate the assertion of the defenses.
Furthermore, Hantu has not demonstrated that he was prejudiced by the amendment. In addition to the workers' compensation statute, the district court independently determined that Hantu failed to prove a causal connection between Hantu's workers' compensation claim and his termination. Thus, the district court determined that Hantu was not entitled to relief on the merits.
Hantu's second procedural claim is that the district court erred in failing to put his motions in limine on the record. Although the existence of a record is essential to adequate review, Hantu has not based any part of his appeal on the denial of a motion in limine or the violation of a limitation. But more significantly, the record indicates the motion was withdrawn. When the district court asked Hantu's attorney whether the motion in limine was important in light of the trial to the court without a jury, Hantu's attorney responded, "I guess in light of the evidentiary stipulations * * * the motions in limine can be withdrawn at this time."
Hantu's third claim of procedural error is the district court's failure to sequester the defense witnesses. The district court, within its discretion, may order witnesses to be sequestered. Minn. R. Evid. 615; State v. Jones, 347 N.W.2d 796, 802 (Minn. 1984). Hantu's claim of error fails, however, because he has not shown why sequestration was necessary, how the denial of sequestration was an abuse of discretion, or that any prejudice resulted from this failure to sequester. See Minn. R. Civ. P. 61 (harmless error does not form the basis for a reversal).
Hantu's claim of evidentiary error is that the district court erroneously admitted letters from Onan's director of legal affairs and from Onan's temporary services vendor. The district court ruled that the letters were not hearsay because they were not admitted to prove the truth of the matter asserted, but rather to demonstrate Onan’s intentions or state of mind. See Minn. R. Evid. 801(c). We conclude that Hantu has demonstrated neither error nor prejudice. In denying the motion for a new trial, the district court specifically stated that it had made its findings based on in-court testimony. Thus, the admission of the letters did not affect the result. See Glood v. Gundlach, 303 Minn. 447, 228 N.W.2d 566 (1975) (evidentiary errors will not justify a new trial unless the factfinder relied on admitted evidence when making its decision).
Hantu claims the district court erred in identifying Hantu's statutorily-protected conduct as his filing of the discrimination claim in April 1998. He contends that his complaints about low wages that preceded the filing of the complaint were also protected acts that resulted in reprisal.
The Minnesota Human Rights Act forbids reprisal against an employee who opposes a practice forbidden under the act. Minn. Stat. § 363.03, subd. 7(1) (1998). Reprisal claims are analyzed under the McDonnell-Douglas shifting-burdens test. Hubbard v. United Press Int’l, Inc., 330 N.W.2d 428, 444 (Minn. 1983). To establish reprisal, the employee must show statutorily-protected conduct, an adverse-employment action by the employer, and a causal connection between the two. Dietrich v. Canadian Pac. Ltd., 536 N.W.2d 319, 327 (Minn. 1995); see also Cross v. Cleaver, 142 F.3d 1059, 1071 (8th Cir. 1998) (interpreting similar provisions of federal discrimination law).
Protected conduct includes both opposing a discriminatory practice and filing a claim. Minn. Stat. § 363.03, subd. 7(1). But “opposing” a discriminatory practice does not include mere complaints of unfair treatment that are not tied to specific allegations of discriminatory intent. See Dietrich, 536 N.W.2d at 326-27 (finding protected activity occurred only upon filing the claim when evidence showed that employee's previous complaints of unfair treatment did not allege discrimination); see also Carver v. Peace Officers Standards & Training Bd., 558 N.W.2d 267, 272-73 (Minn. App. 1997) (holding complaints about discrimination and harassment made by employee during training session were merely “issues” or “concerns” and did not rise to “protected activity” under reprisal statute).
The evidence at trial was sufficient for the district court to conclude that Hantu did not engage in protected activity until he filed his EEOC claim in April 1998. A careful review of the testimony of Hantu and his supervisor shows that although Hantu complained several times about his low wages, he did not link his wage complaints to discriminatory practices based upon his national origin. Furthermore, Hantu's complaint alleges that the reprisal occurred because he "filed a charge" of discrimination. The district court had ample evidence to conclude the protected activity on the reprisal claim did not occur until Hantu filed his discrimination claim in April 1998.
Hantu's final claim is that the district court erred in finding no causal connection between his termination and his discrimination and workers' compensation complaints.
A causal connection between the statutorily-protected conduct and the adverse employment action is a necessary element of a claim for reprisal. Dietrich, 536 N.W.2d at 327. The causal connection may be satisfied by evidence of circumstances that justify an inference of retaliatory motive, such as showing the employer has actual or imputed knowledge of the protected activity and the adverse employment action follows closely in time. Id.; see also Hubbard, 330 N.W.2d at 445 (two days between protected conduct and discharge sufficient to show causal connection). To establish a retaliation claim for filing a workers’ compensation claim, the employee must show that the employer discharged him for seeking benefits. See Minn. Stat. § 176.82, subd. 1 (1998).
The evidence at trial was sufficient for the district court to find that there was no causal connection between the protected activities and the termination. Hantu's supervisor and Onan’s legal counsel testified that Hantu's employment was terminated for threatening a temporary employee after engaging in three prior misconduct incidents. The supervisor testified to the circumstances of each incident of misconduct. The first incident, resulting in a written warning for obtaining medical care without first reporting the injury, occurred before any protected activity had occurred.
The district court listened to the witnesses, evaluated credibility, and determined that the termination was not causally connected to the protected activities. The district court specifically found that Hantu's credibility was severely impeached with respect to his account of the workplace incidents and that he offered no other credible evidence that he was terminated in retaliation for protected conduct. The court found that Onan's witnesses offered credible testimony that Hantu was terminated for four separate instances of misconduct each evidenced by a separate written warning. The district court hears the testimony and observes the witnesses and is in the best position to determine whether evidentiary support is sufficient to withstand a motion for a new trial. LaValle v. Aqualand Pool Co., Inc., 257 N.W.2d 324, 328 (Minn. 1977). The record supports the district court's determination and the court did not abuse its discretion in denying the posttrial motions.