This opinion will be unpublished and
may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2002).
STATE OF MINNESOTA
IN COURT OF APPEALS
Village Chevrolet Company, et al.,
Hennepin County District Court
File No. EM9817264
Stephen W. Cooper, Stacey R. Everson, The Cooper Law Firm, Chartered, 800 Ceresota Building, 155 Fifth Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN 55401 (for appellant)
Eric J. Magnuson, Daniel Q. Poretti, John J. Wackman, Rider, Bennett, Egan & Arundel, LLP, 333 South Seventh Street, Suite 2000, Minneapolis, MN 55402 (for respondent)
Considered and decided by Kalitowski, Presiding Judge, Minge, Judge, and Hudson, Judge.
U N P U B L I S H E D O P I N I O N
On appeal from an order denying her motion for JNOV or a new trial, appellant argues that (1) the district court erred in concluding that neither a written memorandum to respondent Hoel nor subsequent oral statements constituted a discrimination complaint that triggered a duty to investigate; (2) the district court erred in concluding that based on a previous order granting respondents partial summary judgment, the only issue for trial was whether respondents wrongfully discharged appellant because of her pregnancy; and (3) the district court erred in granting respondents summary judgment on appellant’s claim that her termination violated Minn. Stat. § 181.941 (1996), the parenting leave statute. We affirm.
1. Written memorandum
A reviewing court is not bound by and need not give deference to a district court’s decision on a purely legal issue. Frost-Benco Elec. Ass’n v. Minnesota Pub. Utils. Comm’n, 358 N.W.2d 639, 642 (Minn. 1984). We need not defer to the district court’s application of the law when the material facts are not in dispute. Hubred v. Control Data Corp., 422 N.W.2d 308, 310 (Minn. 1989).
Minn. Stat. § 363.03, subd. 1(2)(c) (1996), provides that discrimination on the basis of sex with respect to terms and conditions of employment is an unfair employment practice. The definition of “sex” includes pregnancy. Minn. Stat. § 363.01, subd. 40 (1996). Additionally, an employer may be liable for sexual harassment if the employer fails to make a timely and appropriate response to the conduct complained of. Cont’l Can Co. v. State, 297 N.W.2d 241, 249 (Minn. 1980) abrogated by statute on other grounds, Cummings v. Koehnen, 568 N.W.2d 418, 423 n.6 (Minn. 1997).
Appellant argues that the district court committed reversible error as a matter of law in concluding that her written memorandum to respondent Hoel dated November 17, 1997, did not trigger a duty to investigate appellant’s complaints. We disagree.
The district court heard much testimony regarding the memorandum from appellant to respondent Hoel. In the memorandum, appellant informed Hoel that she was “subjected to ridicule and enormous scrutiny” because she was working a schedule that was different from the other managers. Appellant’s schedule allowed her to arrive half an hour after the “standard” start time of 8:30 a.m., and appellant had alternating Saturdays off. Some of her co-workers referred to appellant as a “part-timer.” Moreover, appellant’s memorandum stated that she had heard through the “rumor mill” that Hoel was going to fire her because of her pregnancy. Appellant asked Hoel to “clarify the validity of this situation.” Hoel met with appellant to discuss her memorandum. Hoel denied saying that appellant’s pregnancy would affect her job and instead testified that he told appellant that he was not considering terminating her due to her pregnancy. Hoel also spoke with Al Maze about his involvement in the rumors.
The district court considered the memorandum as evidence supporting appellant’s position on the issue of pretext in its McDonnell-Douglas analysis. See McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 803-04, 93 S. Ct. 1817, 1824-25 (1973). But the court concluded that the complaints in the memorandum and the subsequent meeting between appellant and Hoel did not trigger a duty to investigate. We agree.
Appellant’s memorandum merely asked Hoel for clarification regarding the rumors she heard. Hoel clarified the rumors by informing appellant that he had no intention of firing her because she was pregnant. Hoel also spoke with Maze about his role in the rumors. Thus, Hoel responded appropriately to the request contained in appellant’s memorandum that he clarify the validity of the rumors regarding her termination.
2. Oral statements
Appellant also claims that she made a second complaint of discrimination to Hoel over the phone after she left work early on February 4, 1998. But Hoel testified that appellant never mentioned anything regarding pregnancy discrimination during either of the two conversations he had with appellant on that day. Hoel’s understanding about why appellant left work early was that she was upset over having to drive a Chevrolet Malibu as a demonstrator vehicle instead of a Chevrolet Blazer. And the district court found that appellant was upset on February 4, 1998, due to the vehicle situation, scheduling problems, and other issues not related to pregnancy discrimination. The court’s finding has significant support in the record and is not clearly erroneous. See Minn. R. Civ. P. 52.01 (findings of fact not set aside unless clearly erroneous). Moreover, judging the credibility of witnesses is left to the district court. Hasnudeen v. Onan Corp., 552 N.W.2d 555, 557 (Minn. 1996).
Further, even if the district court erred in not finding a duty to investigate, we reject appellant’s contention that respondents’ failure to investigate operated as a separate cause of action creating employer liability. Although an employer’s investigation serves as a defense to vicarious liability, appellant has offered no support for the contention that an employer’s failure to investigate, in and of itself, creates liability. See Fore v. Health Dimensions, Inc., 509 N.W.2d 557, 561 (Minn. App. 1993) (explaining that an employer may “escape liability” for its supervisor’s discriminatory acts if takes “timely and appropriate remedial action”).
The district court’s conclusion that a duty to investigate is not a separate cause of action is consistent with the supreme court’s analysis in Cont’l Can that an employer may have vicarious liability for its agents’ or supervisors’ discriminatory acts if it fails to investigate complaints of discrimination. Cont’l Can, 297 N.W.2d at 249. Here, because the district court found that there was no underlying discrimination, the district court did not err in concluding that employer liability did not attach for failure to investigate.
Appellant contends that the district court erred by misinterpreting the partial summary judgment ruling and concluding that there was not a hostile environment claim before the court. We disagree.
Interpretation of a district court’s order presents a question of law. Anderson v. Archer, 510 N.W.2d 1, 3 (Minn. App. 1993). If the language of the order is ambiguous, the court may interpret it. Stieler v. Stieler, 244 Minn. 312, 318, 70 N.W.2d 127, 131 (1955). If the language is unambiguous, it is not subject to interpretation. Id. Whether an order is ambiguous is a question of law that this court may examine independently. Halverson v. Halverson, 381 N.W.2d 69, 71 (Minn. App. 1986) (citation omitted).
Appellant’s original complaint alleged four counts against respondents, including: (1) pregnancy, gender, and disability discrimination; (2) violation of Minn. Stat. § 181.941 (1996), the parenting leave statute; (3) negligence; and (4) negligent supervision. The order granting partial summary judgment stated that respondents’ motion for summary judgment with respect to the count of pregnancy, gender, and disability discrimination was granted in part and denied in part.
That part of [appellant’s] claim in Count I for gender discrimination is dismissed. Only the remaining claim for wrongful discharge because of [appellant’s] pregnancy shall remain.
Based on the language of the partial summary judgment order, the district court concluded that:
[Appellant] originally set forth several allegations of illegal conduct expressed in several counts in her Complaint. All of the counts were dismissed on summary judgment save one. The only issue for trial was part of a count alleging wrongful discharge of [appellant], in particular wrongful discharge because of her pregnancy.
The language of the summary judgment order unambiguously dismisses all of appellant’s claims, except for wrongful discharge due to pregnancy. The order states that “only the remaining claim for wrongful discharge because of [appellant’s] pregnancy shall remain.” Thus, the district court did not err by considering only the claim for wrongful discharge.
Appellant argues in the alternative that if the partial summary judgment order dismissed the hostile environment claim, the dismissal was in error. On an appeal of summary judgment, this court must ask two questions: (1) whether there are any genuine issues of material fact; and (2) whether the lower courts erred in their application of the law. State by Cooper v. French, 460 N.W.2d 2, 4 (Minn. 1990) (citation omitted). Further, the reviewing court views the evidence in the light most favorable to the party against whom judgment was granted. Fabio v. Bellamo, 504 N.W.2d 758, 761 (Minn. 1993) (citation omitted). But no genuine issue of material fact exists “[w]here the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the nonmoving party.” DLH Inc. v. Russ, 566 N.W.2d 60, 69 (Minn. 1997) (alteration in original) (quotation omitted). Also, a genuine issue of material fact for trial must be established by substantial evidence. Id. at 69-70 (quotation omitted).
We conclude that the district court properly determined that there were no genuine issues of material fact regarding appellant’s hostile work environment claim. For a hostile environment theory to be actionable:
* * * [A] plaintiff must establish that (1) she is a member of a protected group; (2) she was subject to unwelcome harassment; (3) the harassment was based on membership in a protected group; (4) the harassment affected a term, condition or privilege of her employment; and (5) the employer knew or should have known of the harassment and failed to take appropriate remedial action.
Even if a plaintiff demonstrates discriminatory harassment, such conduct is not actionable unless it is ‘so severe or pervasive’ as to alter the conditions of the plaintiff’s employment and create an abusive working environment. * * * In ascertaining whether an environment is sufficiently hostile or abusive to support a claim, courts look at the totality of the circumstances.
Goins v. West Group, 635 N.W.2d 717, 725 (Minn. 2001) (citations and quotations omitted).
Appellant satisfied prong one because she was pregnant and therefore, belonged to a protected group. Appellant also satisfied prongs two and three because she alleged that she was “repeatedly told by her lead manager and other managers that she should quit because she was pregnant * * * .” But appellant did not show that there was a genuine issue of material fact as to prong four because the alleged harassment did not affect a term, condition, or privilege of employment. According to appellant’s testimony, she was unhappy with her job prior to becoming pregnant, and she complained to Hoel that her job kept her away from her family. Moreover, appellant filled out an employee feedback form after writing the memorandum to Hoel, indicating that she greatly enjoyed her job and that management did a great job of getting her the help that she needed. Additionally, the record indicates that the “part-timer” comments from other employees were made in reference to appellant’s more accommodating schedule.
Appellant also failed to satisfy prong five, the employer knew or should have known of the harassment and failed to take proper remedial action. According to appellant’s testimony, she never told anyone about the comments made by her lead manager and the other managers. Thus, according to appellant’s own testimony, employer did not know of the alleged harassment. Nor can we conclude from the record that the harassment was so severe that respondents should have known about it.
Taking the record as a whole regarding appellant’s claim of a hostile working environment based on pregnancy, no rational trier of fact could find that the conduct complained of was so severe or pervasive that it resulted in abusive working conditions or altered the conditions of appellant’s employment. We conclude that the district court did not err by granting summary judgment on appellant’s hostile environment claim.
Appellant also contends that her claim under Minn. Stat. § 181.941 (1996), the parenting leave act, was improperly dismissed by summary judgment.
Minn. Stat. § 181.941, subd. 1, requires that:
An employer must grant an unpaid leave of absence to an employee who is a natural or adoptive parent in conjunction with the birth or adoption of a child.
The statute also provides that “leave shall begin at the time requested by the employee.” Minn. Stat. § 181.941, subd. 2. An “employee” is defined as someone who has performed services for hire for “at least 12 consecutive months immediately preceding the request.” Minn. Stat. § 181.940, subd. 2(1) (1996). Employers are prohibited from retaliating against an employee for “requesting or obtaining a leave of absence” under the parenting leave act. Minn. Stat. § 181.941, subd. 3. The summary judgment court concluded that the parenting leave act had not yet been triggered because appellant had not requested leave at the time of her termination.
Appellant argues that, even though she had not yet requested leave and had not given notice of her need for leave, respondents still violated the parenting leave act by terminating her when they knew she was pregnant and would likely be requesting leave in the near future. We disagree.
When the district court grants summary judgment based on the application of a statute to undisputed facts, the result is a legal conclusion, reviewed de novo by the appellate court. Lefto v. Hoggsbreath Enters., Inc., 581 N.W.2d 855, 856 (Minn. 1998). Plain meaning is the governing principle in applying all statutory language, but the court need not give effect to plain meaning if it produces an absurd result or an unreasonable result that is plainly at variance with the policy of the legislation as a whole. Occhino v. Grover, 640 N.W.2d 357, 360 (Minn. App. 2002).
Here, applying the plain meaning of the statutory language leads to a reasonable result. Appellant never requested or obtained leave, a prerequisite to protection under the parenting leave act, and therefore, appellant is not entitled to protection under the statute. See McGraw v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 21 F. Supp. 2d 1017, 1022 (D. Minn. 1998) (“In the absence of any request for leave, or any showing of its denial after such a request, there is simply no question to submit to a jury on this claim.”).
We reject appellant’s argument that if the plain language of the parenting leave act is followed then the entire act is negated because an employer could legally fire pregnant employees as soon as the employer learns they are pregnant. First, appellant offers no legal support for this argument. Moreover, appellant fails to acknowledge that employers who fire employees because they are pregnant may be liable for sex discrimination. Thus, employees who are terminated because of pregnancy may pursue legal recourse under the Minnesota Human Rights Act and Title VII.
Because appellant never requested leave, the parenting leave act was not triggered, and the district court did not err by granting summary judgment on this claim.