This opinion will be unpublished and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
Minnesota Department of Human Rights,
Minnesota Department of Human Rights
Howard L. Bolter, Borkon, Ramstead, Mariani, Fishman & Carp, Ltd., 5401 Gamble Drive, Suite 100 Parkdale I, Minneapolis, MN 55416 (for relator)
William M. Hart, John J. McDonald, Jr., Erica Gutmann Strohl, Meagher & Geer P.L.L.P., 4200 Multifoods Tower, 33 South Sixth Street, Minneapolis, MN 55402 (for respondent Hamline University)
Minnesota Department of Human Rights, 190 East Fifth Street, Suite 700, St. Paul, MN 55101 (respondent)
Considered and decided by Toussaint, Chief Judge, Kalitowski, Judge, and Halbrooks, Judge.
U N P U B L I S H E D O P I N I O N
Relator Penny Cierzan argues that the administrative law judge (ALJ) erred in granting respondent summary disposition on relator’s claim of reprisal under the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA). We affirm.
D E C I S I O N
Relator is appealing a grant of summary disposition by an ALJ, which is the administrative equivalent of a grant of summary judgment by a district court. Minn. R. 1400.5500(K) (2001). On appeal from summary judgment, a reviewing court determines whether any genuine issues of material fact exist and whether the district court erred in its application of the law. Wartnick v. Moss & Barnett, 490 N.W.2d 108, 112 (Minn. 1992). In doing so, the court views the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. State by Beaulieu v. City of Mounds View, 518 N.W.2d 567, 571 (Minn. 1994). But a party cannot rely on speculation or general assertions to create a genuine issue of material fact. Nicollet Restoration, Inc. v. City of St. Paul, 533 N.W.2d 845, 848 (Minn. 1995). Further, summary judgment is appropriate when a party “fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party’s case.” Iacona v. Schrupp, 521 N.W.2d 70, 72 (Minn. App. 1994) (quotation omitted). No deference need be given to the district court’s application of the law. Frost-Benco Elec. Ass’n v. Minnesota Pub. Utils. Comm’n, 358 N.W.2d 639, 642 (Minn. 1984).
The MHRA prohibits intentional reprisal against an employee who has engaged in statutorily protected activity. Minn. Stat. § 363.03, subd. 7 (2000). Relator claims Hamline University (Hamline) intentionally engaged in reprisal following her request for maternity leave. Reprisal claims are analyzed under the McDonnell-Douglas burden shifting analysis. Hubbard v. United Press Int’l, Inc., 330 N.W.2d 428, 444 (Minn. 1983).
The McDonnell-Douglas analysis involves a three-step process. First, an employee must demonstrate a prima facie case of reprisal by a preponderance of the evidence. Fletcher v. St. Paul Pioneer Press, 589 N.W.2d 96, 101-02 (Minn. 1999). To establish a prima facie case of reprisal, an employee must show (1) that he or she engaged in statutorily protected conduct; (2) that the employer took adverse action; and (3) that a causal connection exists between the employee’s conduct and the employer’s action. Hubbard, 330 N.W.2d at 444. If the employee establishes a prima facie case, the burden of production shifts to the employer to articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its employment decision. Id. at 445. Finally, if the employer meets its burden, the employee must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the legitimate reason offered by the employer was a mere pretext for reprisal. Id.
Summary judgment is appropriate if the employee fails to present a prima facie case. Matson v. Cargill, Inc., 618 F. Supp. 278, 281 (D.Minn. 1985). Summary judgment is also appropriate if the employee establishes a prima facie case, but fails to provide evidence that could establish that the employer’s proffered nondiscriminatory reasons for its employment decision were pretextual. Shea v. Hanna Mining Co., 397 N.W.2d 362, 369 (Minn. App. 1986) (citing Parker v. Fed. Nat’l Mortgage Ass’n, 741 F.2d 975, 979-80 (7th Cir. 1984)).
1. Prima facie case
In granting summary disposition in favor of Hamline, the ALJ determined that relator failed to establish a prima facie case of reprisal. We disagree.
First, we note that both relator and Hamline agree that relator’s request for maternity leave is statutorily protected conduct under the MHRA.
Next, we must determine whether relator met the second requirement for establishing a prima facie case of reprisal by demonstrating that her employer took adverse employment actions. Relator alleges that Hamline engaged in numerous acts of reprisal following her request for maternity leave: (1) Hamline reduced relator’s leave accrual rate; (2) Hamline sent relator an appointment letter stating that relator’s hours would now be monitored by her supervisor and that relator would be required to teach a summer school course; (3) relator’s supervisor made hostile comments toward relator following the request for maternity leave including referring to relator’s pregnancy as a “problem,” and suggesting that relator not return to the department following her pregnancy in order to end “departmental discord”; and (4) relator’s supervisor requested that relator attend a five-day paralegal conference even though this was never asked of relator prior to her maternity leave request.
An adverse employment action “materially alters the terms or conditions of the plaintiff’s employment.” Ludwig v. Northwest Airlines, Inc., 98 F. Supp. 2d 1057, 1069 (D.Minn. 2000) (quotation omitted). An adverse employment action can be exhibited by a material employment disadvantage such as a change in salary, benefits, or responsibilities. LaCroix v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 240 F.3d 688, 691 (8th Cir. 2001). Here, the alleged actions by Hamline materially altered the benefits and responsibilities of relator’s position and therefore constituted adverse employment actions.
Establishing a causal connection between the employee’s conduct and the employer’s action is the final step in relator’s prima facie case. Relator argues that the closeness in time between the request for maternity leave and the adverse employment actions established that causal connection. A causal connection may be demonstrated indirectly by
evidence of circumstances that justify an inference of retaliatory motive, such as a showing that the employer has actual or imputed knowledge of the protected activity and the adverse employment action follows closely in time.
Hubbard, 330 N.W.2d at 445. A causal connection can be established solely on the basis of temporal proximity if the protected action and adverse employment action occurred within a short period of time. Heimbach v. Riedman Corp., 175 F. Supp. 2d 1167, 1177 (D.Minn. 2001). Here, the closeness in time between relator’s request for maternity leave and the adverse employment actions taken by Hamline provide sufficient evidence of a causal connection. Thus, we conclude that relator established a prima facie case of reprisal.
Following the establishment of a prima facie case of reprisal, the burden of production shifts to Hamline to articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its adverse employment actions. Hubbard, 330 N.W.2d at 445. We conclude that Hamline met this burden.
First, Hamline stated that it changed relator’s leave accrual rate in order to correct a clerical error. Relator held a position classified as half-faculty/half-staff. But despite this classification, relator had been accruing leave at a full-staff person rate. When relator requested maternity leave, Hamline discovered this error and adjusted relator’s leave accrual rate accordingly.
Next, Hamline stated that it sent the appointment letter to relator in order to create a formal record of relator’s position in the file. An E-mail message existed in the file that classified relator’s position, but no formal appointment letter existed. Moreover, Hamline explained that the terms of the appointment letter did not materially alter relator’s job responsibilities. The letter correctly stated that relator was in the final year of her three-year contract. Because relator and her supervisor had disagreed in the past about relator’s job duties, Hamline decided to place her supervisor in charge of relator’s hours in an attempt to prevent future disagreements. Finally, Hamline assigned relator to teach summer school because the course needed to be assigned and because relator had taught summer school courses in the past.
As for the relationship between relator and her supervisor, Hamline produced evidence that showed the two had conflicts well before relator’s request for maternity leave. For example, Hamline produced a letter written by relator’s mother in May 1999, long before relator became pregnant. The letter was addressed to relator’s supervisor and accused her of intentionally humiliating relator and of making relator’s job consistently and intentionally miserable. Hamline thus showed that the supervisor’s behavior toward relator remained consistent throughout relator’s employment. The two had a stormy relationship both before and after relator’s request for maternity leave.
Because Hamline has articulated legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for its actions, the burden shifts back to relator to show that Hamline’s proffered reasons were merely a pretext for reprisal. Id. Relator maintains at all times the ultimate burden of persuading the trier of fact that the adverse employment actions were motivated by reprisal. Rothmeier v. Inv. Advisors, Inc., 85 F.3d 1328, 1332 (8th Cir. 1996). Relator argues that the proximity in time between the adverse employment actions and her request for maternity leave is enough to establish a finding of pretext. We disagree.
The proper scope of inquiry on the issue of pretext is limited to whether the employer gave an honest explanation of its behavior. Krenik v. County of LeSueur, 47 F.3d 953, 960 (8th Cir. 1995). The employee must establish that there is a question about whether the employer’s justification is pretextual that creates a genuine issue of material fact for trial. Geraci v. Eckankar, 526 N.W.2d 391, 396 (Minn. App. 1995), review denied (Minn. Mar. 14, 1995). An employee may show pretext either
directly by persuading the court that a discriminatory reason likely motivated the employer or indirectly by showing that the employer’s proffered explanation is unworthy of credence.
Sigurdson v. Isanti County, 386 N.W.2d 715, 720 (Minn. 1986) (citation omitted).
We conclude that relator failed to show that either a discriminatory reason likely motivated Hamline or that Hamline’s proffered explanations were unworthy of credence. Although the timing of the adverse employment actions may raise an inference of a retaliatory motive to satisfy relator’s prima facie case, that inference was rebutted by Hamline and therefore relator has not raised a genuine issue of material fact that Hamline’s justifications were pretextual. See Geraci, 526 N.W.2d at 396.
It is undisputed that relator was accruing more leave time than she was entitled to receive. Following the request for maternity leave, the error was discovered and corrected. Relator failed to show that her request for maternity leave and not the discovery of the error likely motivated Hamline’s action. Moreover, it is undisputed that no official document existed that classified relator’s position. Hamline sent the appointment letter in order to clarify relator’s job status and job duties. Again, relator failed to show that her request for maternity leave and not the need to update the employment file likely motivated Hamline’s action. Finally, relator failed to show that her supervisor’s behavior was likely motivated by relator’s request for maternity leave. The supervisor and relator had a long history of not getting along. The fact that they continued to get into disputes following relator’s request for maternity leave just continued that trend of hostility. Thus, relator failed to establish an escalation in hostility toward relator following relator’s request for maternity leave.
Summary judgment is appropriate if the employee establishes a prima facie case, but fails to provide evidence that could establish that the employer’s proffered nondiscriminatory reasons for its employment decision were pretextual. Shea,397 N.W.2d at 369. We conclude that the ALJ erred in granting summary disposition for Hamline on the ground that relator failed to establish a prima facie case of reprisal. But this court will not reverse a correct decision simply because it is based on incorrect reasons. Katz v. Katz, 408 N.W.2d 835, 839 (Minn. 1987). Because we conclude that relator failed to raise a genuine issue of material fact that Hamline’s proffered nondiscriminatory reasons for its employment decisions were pretextual, we affirm the ALJ’s decision to grant summary disposition.