This opinion will be unpublished and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
Michael D. Jones,
Minneapolis Public Schools,
Special School District No. 1, et al.,
Filed April 29, 2003
Hennepin County District Court
File No. MC01007279
Jordan S. Kushner, 636 Sexton Building, 529 South 7th Street, Minneapolis, MN 55415 (for appellant)
James C. Selmer, Marc M. Berg, James C. Selmer & Associates, 701 Fourth Avenue South, Suite 500, Minneapolis, MN 55415 (for respondents)
Considered and decided by Willis, Presiding Judge, Schumacher, Judge, and Anderson, Judge.
U N P U B L I S H E D O P I N I O N
Appellant challenges the district court’s grant of summary judgment to respondents on his various civil-rights and common-law claims. Because we conclude that the district court erred by granting summary judgment on appellant’s Minnesota Human Rights Act claim, we affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand.
In October 2000, the daughter of appellant Michael D. Jones was a sixth-grade student at Broadway School, which was operated by respondent Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS). Because Jones’s daughter had difficulty reading, her previous school had developed an individual education program (IEP) for her, under which teachers gave her extra time to complete assignments and tests.
On October 9, Jones learned that the teachers at Broadway did not have an IEP in place for his daughter. Jones also learned that because his daughter was having trouble finishing her schoolwork, she had been required to attend study hall, which Jones considered to be “punitive.” That day, Jones telephoned Broadway administrators to complain, but they insisted that his daughter must attend study hall in light of her performance. Jones admits that he hung up on at least one Broadway staff member who did not give him a satisfactory response. Jones also filed a grievance with the Minnesota Department of Children, Families, and Learning, alleging that MPS was not complying with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400-1487 (2000).
Jones immediately decided to transfer his daughter from Broadway to Sheridan School, which he believed could better meet her educational needs. All transfers had to be completed through the MPS Welcome Center, of which respondent Sherry Belton Hardeman was director. Although Jones claims that someone at Sheridan told him that the school had space available for his daughter, when Jones called the Welcome Center he was told that the center’s records showed that Sheridan had no space available. Jones eventually spoke with Hardeman, who iterated that because of the lack of space his daughter could not transfer to Sheridan at that time. Jones admits that he became “upset” upon learning this.
Later on October 9, Jones received a telephone call from the principal of Broadway, who assured him that the school would develop an IEP for his daughter. Jones changed his mind about transferring his daughter, and he and Broadway staff met soon thereafter to develop an IEP.
At the time of these events, Jones was an at-will employee of Hands On Cedar Hill Academy (“Hands On”), a private school and MPS contractor. Jones’s supervisor was Lorraine Smaller, director of Hands On. Smaller was acquainted with Hardeman because the two had worked together before.
On October 17, Hardeman learned that Jones worked at Hands On and telephoned Smaller. Hardeman told Smaller that on October 9, Jones had called the Welcome Center and had been “screaming,” “yelling,” and “ranting and raving” at and “hanging up” on MPS employees. Hardeman also told Smaller that she was “surprised” to learn that he worked for Hands On in light of his behavior.
Within hours of Hardeman’s call, Smaller confronted Jones at the Hands On offices about what Hardeman had said. She reminded Jones that he was an employee of Hands On, that Hands On had a contract with MPS, and that his behavior “could create a problem” with respect to the contract. Jones admits that, as a result of this conversation, he became “highly” and “visibly” upset and concluded that someone from MPS had improperly disclosed to Smaller information about his October 9 dispute with MPS. Jones then left the Hands On offices in an attempt to speak with someone from MPS about what had happened. When Jones returned approximately two hours later, Smaller told him that he was fired for being insubordinate in the earlier meeting.
Jones commenced this lawsuit against MPS and Hardeman, alleging (1) reprisal in violation of the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA), Minn. Stat. § 363.03, subd. 7 (2000); (2) denial of his Fourteenth Amendment right to due process of law, in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (2000); (3) retaliation against the exercise of his First Amendment right to free speech, in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983; (4) intentional interference with contractual relations; (5) defamation; (6) violation of the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act, Minn. Stat. § 13.08, subd. 1 (2000); and (7) invasion of privacy. More than a year later, Jones moved the district court to amend his complaint to add a claim for punitive damages; the district court reserved decision on the issue of punitive damages on the MHRA reprisal claim and denied Jones’s motion as to the remaining claims. The district court ultimately granted respondents’ motion for summary judgment on all of Jones’s claims.
Jones appeals, arguing that the district court erred by granting summary judgment on his claims for violation of the MHRA, violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983, intentional interference with contractual relations, and defamation. Jones also argues that the district court abused its discretion by denying his motion to add a claim for punitive damages as to the claims for violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983, intentional interference with contractual relations, and defamation.
D E C I S I O N
On an appeal from summary judgment, we ask two questions: (1) whether the evidence shows that there are any genuine issues of material fact and (2) whether the district court erred in its interpretation of the law. State by Cooper v. French, 460 N.W.2d 2, 4 (Minn. 1990). We view the evidence in the light most favorable to the party against whom judgment was granted. Fabio v. Bellomo, 504 N.W.2d 758, 761 (Minn. 1993).
A. MHRA reprisal claim
Intentionally engaging in a reprisal against a person because that person opposed a practice forbidden by the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA), Minn. Stat. ch. 363, constitutes illegal discrimination. Minn. Stat. § 363.03, subd. 7(1) (2002). To establish a prima facie case of reprisal and thus withstand a defendant’s motion for summary judgment, a plaintiff must show (1) that he engaged in statutorily protected conduct, (2) that he suffered an adverse employment action, and (3) that there is a causal connection between the two. See Hoover v. Norwest Private Mortgage Banking, 632 N.W.2d 534, 548 (Minn. 2001). In analyzing MHRA reprisal claims, we apply federal caselaw discussing retaliation claims brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e-2000e–17 (2000). See Fletcher v. St. Paul Pioneer Press, 589 N.W.2d 96, 101 (Minn. 1999).
The district court concluded that Jones must also make a showing that respondents intentionally engaged in a reprisal to withstand the motion for summary judgment. But caselaw indicates that a plaintiff need only show protected conduct, an adverse action, and causation. See, e.g., Hoover, 632 N.W.2d at 548-49; Dietrich v. Canadian Pac. Ltd., 536 N.W.2d 319, 326-27 (Minn. 1995). Thus, the district court erred by concluding that Jones must also show intent to withstand respondents’ motion for summary judgment.
Jones argues that the district court erred by concluding that there was no issue of material fact as to whether he engaged in statutorily protected activity. Jones may establish protected activity by showing that he had a good-faith, reasonable belief that respondents were engaging in illegal discrimination. See Evans v. Kansas City, Mo. Sch. Dist., 65 F.3d 98, 100 (8th Cir. 1995) (discussing a Title VII claim). Whether good faith exists is typically a question of fact for the jury. See Elwood v. Rice County, 423 N.W.2d 671, 674 (Minn. 1988). Nothing in the record establishes that Jones acted in bad faith when on October 9 he asserted to MPS officials and to the Minnesota Department of Children, Families, and Learning that the treatment of his daughter violated the law. Whether Jones’s assertion arose from a good-faith belief that illegal discrimination was taking place is a jury question. Thus, we conclude that an issue of material fact exists as to whether Jones engaged in protected activity.
Next, Jones must show an issue of material fact as to whether he suffered an adverse employment action. Jones was fired, and we conclude that this is a sufficiently adverse employment action. See Montandon v. Farmland Indus., Inc., 116 F.3d 355, 359 (8th Cir. 1997) (providing that any act having an adverse impact on position, title, salary, or any other aspect of employment constitutes an “adverse action” under Title VII).
Finally, Jones argues that the district court erred by concluding that there was no issue of material fact as to whether there was a causal connection between Jones’s statutorily protected activity and his firing. Like good faith, causation is generally a question of fact for the jury. See Paidar v. Hughes, 615 N.W.2d 276, 281 (Minn. 2000). Causation may be established where the adverse action follows closely after the protected conduct. See Hubbard v. United Press Int’l, Inc., 330 N.W.2d 428, 445 (Minn. 1983). Here, approximately one week after her discussion with Jones on the telephone, Hardeman called Smaller to say that Jones was “screaming,” “yelling,” and “ranting and raving” at MPS employees and that Hardeman was “surprised” to learn that Jones worked for Hands On in light of his behavior. Within hours of this call, Smaller told Jones that his conduct “could create a problem” with respect to Hands On’s contract with MPS and terminated Jones’s employment. Thus, Jones has shown an issue of material fact as to whether Hardeman’s telephone call caused him to be fired.
Jones has shown that there are issues of material fact as to whether he engaged in statutorily protected conduct, whether he suffered an adverse employment action, and whether there was a causal connection between the two. We therefore conclude that the district court erred by granting summary judgment to respondents on Jones’s claim of reprisal discrimination under the MHRA.
B. 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claims
Federal law provides a cause of action for those whose civil rights have been violated by government agents:
Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State * * * , subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States * * * to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured * * * .
42 U.S.C. § 1983 (2000). Jones sued respondents under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that they (1) denied him his Fourteenth Amendment right to due process of law and (2) retaliated against him for exercising his First Amendment right to free speech. On appeal, Jones argues that the district court erred by granting summary judgment to respondents on both claims.
1. Denial of due process
Jones alleged that respondents’ actions deprived him of employment without due process of law. An “at-will employee’s right to be free from arbitrary government interference in his employment relation gives rise to a due process right.” Helvey v. City of Maplewood, 154 F.3d 841, 844 (8th Cir. 1998) (citation omitted). But a denial of this right occurs only when a government agency “requires” an employer, over whom it has regulatory authority, to fire an employee “against the employer’s own judgment or will.” Waddell v. Forney, 108 F.3d 889, 893 (8th Cir. 1997); see also Helvey, 154 F.3d at 844.
Here, the record shows only that Hardeman “occasionally” had contact with Smaller and Hands On concerning student transfers and that Hardeman knew that Hands On “received funding” from MPS. Jones has not shown that MPS or the Welcome Center, of which Hardeman was director, had regulatory authority over Hands On. Cf. Chernin v. Lyng, 874 F.2d 501, 503 (8th Cir. 1989) (describing how defendant U.S. Secretary of Agriculture had regulatory authority over plaintiff’s employer, a meatpacking business). In addition, there is no evidence that MPS or Hardeman required Hands On to fire Jones. In her conversation with Smaller, Hardeman said only that Jones had been “ranting and raving” at MPS personnel and that she was therefore surprised that Jones worked for Hands On. Cf. id. (describing how defendant refused to provide legally required inspections of employer’s business until employer no longer associated with plaintiff). We therefore conclude that no issue of material fact exists as to Jones’s due-process claim and that the district court did not err by granting summary judgment to respondents on this claim.
2. Retaliation against the exercise of First Amendment rights
Jones also argues that MPS and Hardeman illegally retaliated against him for exercising his First Amendment right to free speech when he complained to MPS that its treatment of his daughter violated the law. To establish a prima facie case of retaliation, Jones must show (1) that he engaged in constitutionally protected speech, (2) that he suffered an adverse employment action, and (3) that a causal connection exists between the two. See Hudson v. Norris, 227 F.3d 1047, 1050-51 (8th Cir. 2000). Retaliation against protected speech can result in section 1983 liability even if the retaliation is ultimately carried out by a private employer, as long as the private employer qualifies as a “state actor” for section 1983 purposes. See Pendleton v. St. Louis County, 178 F.3d 1007, 1011 (8th Cir. 1999). To consider a private employer a state actor for section 1983 purposes, the plaintiff must allege, “at the very least, that there was a mutual understanding, or a meeting of the minds, between the private party and the state actor.” Id. (quotation omitted). Here, Jones’s complaint alleges no mutual understanding or meeting of the minds between MPS and Hands On. Jones’s retaliation claim therefore fails, and we need not consider whether he has shown the existence of an issue of material fact with respect to this claim.
C. Intentional interference with contractual relations
Jones argues that the district court erred by granting summary judgment to respondents on his claim for intentional interference with contractual relations. To establish a prima facie case for such a claim, Jones must show (1) the existence of a contract, (2) the alleged wrongdoer’s knowledge of the contract, (3) intentional procurement of its breach, (4) a lack of justification, and (5) damages. See Kjesbo v. Ricks, 517 N.W.2d 585, 588 (Minn. 1994).
Respondents argue, and the district court concluded, that there is no issue of material fact as to whether respondents intentionally procured a breach of Jones’s contract with Hands On. We agree. Even when viewed in a light most favorable to Jones, the evidence shows that Hardeman told Smaller only that Jones had been screaming and yelling at MPS personnel and that she was therefore surprised that Jones worked for Hands On. On this evidence, a jury could not conclude that Hardeman or MPS intended to procure a breach of Jones’s contract with Hands On. Thus, the district court did not err by granting summary judgment to respondents on Jones’s claim for intentional interference with contractual relations.
Jones contends that the district court erred by granting summary judgment to respondents on his claim for defamation. To establish a prima facie case of defamation, a plaintiff must show that the statements complained of (1) were published to a third party, (2) were false, (3) referred to the plaintiff, and (4) tended to harm his reputation and “to lower him in the estimation of the community.” Stuempges v. Parke, Davis & Co., 297 N.W.2d 252, 255 (Minn. 1980). Jones alleges that he was defamed by Hardeman’s statements that he had been “hanging up” on MPS employees and that he had been “screaming,” “yelling,” and “ranting and raving” at MPS employees.
Respondents argue, and the district court concluded, that there is no issue of material fact as to whether the statement about Jones hanging up on MPS staff was false. We agree. In his deposition Jones stated that a Broadway School social worker called him on October 9 to discuss the situation involving his daughter. Jones admitted that he became so frustrated with the social worker that he “stopped talking completely” and hung up the telephone. Even if viewed in a light most favorable to Jones, the evidence shows that Hardeman’s statement regarding Jones’s conduct was true. Thus, the district court did not err by concluding that the statement that Jones had hung up on MPS personnel was true.
Respondents also contend, and the district court concluded, that the statements that Jones had been “screaming,” “yelling,” and “ranting and raving” at MPS personnel were too imprecise to be actionable. Again, we agree. Statements that are too imprecise or that could not reasonably be interpreted as stating facts cannot give rise to a claim for defamation. See Geraci v. Eckankar, 526 N.W.2d 391, 398 (Minn. App. 1995), review denied (Minn. Mar. 14, 1995). In Geraci, we held that the statements that the plaintiff was “out of control” and “emotional” were too imprecise to be actionable. Id. at 397-98. The statements at issue here are sufficiently similar to those at issue in Geraci for us to conclude that the district court did not err by concluding that the statements that Jones had been “screaming,” “yelling,” and “ranting and raving” at MPS staff were too imprecise to be actionable. Accordingly, we need not consider respondents’ alternative argument that even if Hardeman published defamatory statements, she did so under a qualified privilege.
We affirm the district court’s grant of summary judgment to respondents on Jones’s claims for violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983, intentional interference with contractual relations, and defamation, and thus we need not consider Jones’s argument that the district court abused its discretion by denying his motion to request punitive damages on these claims. But we reverse the district court’s grant of summary judgment to respondents on the MHRA reprisal claim and remand for further proceedings.
Affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded.