This opinion will be unpublished and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
St. Cloud Christian School,
Filed December 21, 2004
Affirmed in part and appeal dismissed in part
Stearns County District Court
File No. C2-03-1707
John R. Koch, Reichert, Wenner, Koch & Provinzino, P.A., 501 West St. Germain Street, P.O. Box 1556, St. Cloud, MN 56302 (for appellant)
Roger C. Justin, Sharon G. Hobbs, Rinke-Noonan, 1015 West St. Germain Street, Suite 300, P.O. Box 1497, St. Cloud, MN 56302 (for respondent)
Considered and decided by Wright, Presiding Judge; Peterson, Judge; and Stoneburner, Judge.
U N P U B L I S H E D O P I N I O N
In this appeal from a partial judgment granting respondent summary judgment on appellant’s disability-discrimination claim, appellant argues that the district court erred by concluding that appellant did not establish a genuine issue of material fact about whether she is disabled. By notice of review, respondent argues that the district court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction to consider appellant’s claims because judicial review violates its rights under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and the freedom-of-conscience clause of the Minnesota constitution. Respondent also challenges the denial of its motion for summary judgment on appellant’s age-discrimination claim. We affirm in part and dismiss the appeal in part.
Appellant Ruth Rohland, who has diabetes, was employed by respondent St. Cloud Christian School, a nondenominational Christian school, as a third-grade teacher from 1988 to 2001. Under their contract, teachers at the school acknowledge that they are born-again Christians, are active church members, and are committed to Christian education and view it as a ministry and a calling from the Lord.
Appellant received positive employment-performance reviews on November 19, 1999, and May 1, 2000. However, in the 1999-2000 school year, difficulties arose when appellant agreed to take a larger class than usual and had a difficult student. A classroom assistant for appellant observed that appellant became harsher with the children, except when other adults were present. She also observed appellant acting in an impatient and derogatory manner with the children.
On May 20, 2000, after parents complained, a meeting was held that became explosive and polarized the parents. As a result, one parent removed his children from the school. At about this time, when parents of second-graders began requesting teachers for the next school year, more than half asked that their child not be assigned to appellant’s class. Also during this school year, appellant broke her foot and was on workers’ compensation leave from March 9 to 20, 2000.
On August 24, 2000, respondent sent a letter to appellant that essentially placed her on probation. The letter stated:
In light of the difficulties that occurred at the end of the 1999-2000 school year, we felt the need to both reassure you of our support, as well as clarify our expectations.
All [St. Cloud Christian School] teachers, at the time they sign their contracts, agree to uphold the spiritual and professional qualifications listed. During the 1999-2000 year, the mode of discipline, and on many days, your general demeanor with the children was observed by Mrs. Froemming [the school principal] as well as parents, students, and other staff, to not be in keeping with the expected conduct of a Christian teacher. This could be summarized by saying that you were using words, tone of voice and methods of correction that were degrading to the students. This was discussed with you in the Spring, and you admitted that this was an area that you were struggling with. You also indicated, when asked by Mrs. Froemming, that you had fallen out of regular personal Bible study and church attendance.
We would also indicate to you at this time that it is the expectation of the school to have its teachers present whenever possible. Your request for extra days off in March of last year was over the allotted 3 days of personal time as indicated by your contract. While we understand that some circumstances arise on occasion, it is very important to parents and students that all SCCS teachers be in attendance for as many days as is possible.
We have done our best to down-play questions that have been brought to us by parents. It is unfortunate that parents share information with one another unnecessarily, but it is true even in Christian settings. To the best of our ability we will work to channel questions appropriately and stop gossip. However unfortunate, we do believe that it is true that you will be watched very closely this year by many of our parents. That is one of the consequences of your performance last year. Your success will depend on your ability to prove your competence as a positive Christian teacher and role model.
We are praying for you and want you to know that we will support you provided you adhere to the expected spiritual and behavioral standards of the school. If you, at any time, feel the need for assistance in any manner, please seek out one of us.
We are expecting a positive school year. We will look for your ideas and leadership as one of the veteran members of the staff.
The principal conducted further evaluations and prepared an evaluation dated January 30, 2001, in which appellant was told that she would not be offered a teaching contract for the following year. In a letter dated February 12, 2001, appellant was advised that she would be evaluated again in mid-March.
Meanwhile, on January 16, 2001, appellant had eye surgery. Complications required additional surgery on March 20, 2001. Appellant was on medical leave from that date through the end of the school year. In April 2001, appellant received final notice that her employment was terminated.
Appellant brought suit, asserting claims under the Minnesota Human Rights Act Minn. Stat. § 363.03, subd. 1(2)(b) (2002), for disability discrimination and age discrimination. Respondent moved for summary judgment, contending that the district court did not have subject-matter jurisdiction and that appellant did not establish a prima facie case of disability discrimination or age discrimination. The district court concluded that it had jurisdiction, granted respondent’s motion for summary judgment on appellant’s disability-discrimination claim, and denied respondent’s motion for summary judgment on appellant’s age-discrimination claim. The district court directed entry of a partial judgment pursuant to Minn. R. Civ. P. 54.02. This appeal followed.
D E C I S I O N
Respondent argues that the district court did not have subject-matter jurisdiction to consider appellant’s discrimination claims under the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA), Minn. Stat. § 363.03, subd. 1(2)(b) (2002), because applying the MHRA to respondent’s decision to not renew appellant’s contract violates respondent’s constitutional rights to free exercise of religion and freedom of conscience and creates an excessive entanglement with religion. Whether a court has subject-matter jurisdiction is a question of law, which we review de novo. Odenthal v. Minn. Conference of Seventh-Day Adventists, 649 N.W.2d 426, 434 (Minn. 2002).
Free exercise of religion
Under the First Amendment, “Congress shall make no law . . . prohibiting the free exercise” of religion. U.S. Const. amend. I. “This proscription applies to the states by virtue of the fourteenth amendment.” Black v. Snyder, 471 N.W.2d 715, 718 (Minn. App. 1991), review denied (Minn. Aug. 29, 1991). In Black, which involved an associate pastor’s suit against her church and other defendants alleging, among other causes of action, claims under the MHRA, this court explained that under Employment Div., Dep’t of Human Res. v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872, 878, 110 S. Ct. 1595, 1600 (1990), “The free exercise clause affords an absolute right to hold religious beliefs of whatever nature; however, it does not absolutely protect religiously based conduct.” Black, 471 N.W.2d at 718. This court explained further that under Smith, the free exercise clause does not excuse compliance with a neutral law of general applicability that prohibits conduct that the state is free to regulate. Id. at 719. This court concluded that the MHRA is a valid, generally applicable, and facially neutral statute, and, therefore, proceeding on the MHRA claims did not violate the church’s free exercise rights. Id.
Respondent argues that because it treats its teachers as clergy, any regulation by the state in relation to a teacher termination constitutes an impermissible burden on religion. This court recognized in Black that courts generally will not review challenges to church appointments or discharges brought by clergy against their church employers because “evaluation of a minister’s qualifications or fitness to preach is inherently a matter of ecclesiastical concern.” Id. But the record does not demonstrate that appellant should be treated as clergy.
As a general rule, if the employee’s primary duties consist of teaching, spreading the faith, church governance, supervision of a religious order, or supervision or participation in religious ritual and worship, he or she should be considered “clergy.” This approach necessarily requires a court to determine whether a position is important to the spiritual and pastoral mission of the church.
Rayburn v. Gen. Conference of Seventh-Day Adventists, 772 F.2d 1164, 1169 (4th Cir. 1985) (quotation omitted).
Appellant’s primary duties were the duties of a third-grade teacher. These duties included teaching, of course, but appellant’s teaching duties were primarily in secular subjects. Appellant taught a Bible lesson, but respondent is a nondenominational school, and, therefore, appellant did not spread a specific faith, was not responsible for church governance, and did not supervise or participate in religious ritual and worship. In light of these duties, we conclude that even though appellant was expected to be an exemplar for her students, she was not clergy, and under this court’s reasoning in Black, judicial review of appellant’s MHRA claim does not violate respondent’s right to free exercise of religion.
Freedom of conscience
The Minnesota Constitution states:
The right of every man to worship God according to the dictates of his own conscience shall never be infringed; nor shall any man be compelled to attend, erect or support any place of worship, or to maintain any religious or ecclesiastical ministry, against his consent; nor shall any control of or interference with the rights of conscience be permitted, or any preference be given by law to any religious establishment or mode of worship; but the liberty of conscience hereby secured shall not be so construed as to excuse acts of licentiousness or justify practices inconsistent with the peace or safety of the state . . . .
Minn. Const. art. I, § 16.
“Because section 16 precludes an infringement on or an interference with religious freedom and limits the permissible countervailing interests of the government, Minnesotans are afforded greater protection for religious liberties against governmental action under the state constitution than under the first amendment of the federal constitution.” State v. Hershberger, 462 N.W.2d 393, 397 (Minn. 1990). “The constitutional protections afforded to ‘every man’ extend also to churches and their educational institutions.” Hill-Murray Fed’n of Teachers v. Hill-Murray High Sch., 487 N.W.2d 857, 865 (Minn. 1992).
The compelling-state-interest balancing test is used to determine whether state regulation violates the Minnesota freedom-of-conscience clause. Id. “This test has four prongs: whether the objector’s belief is sincerely held; whether the state regulation burdens the exercise of religious beliefs; whether the state interest in the regulation is overriding or compelling; and whether the state regulation uses the least restrictive means.” Id.
With respect to the first prong, appellant does not question that respondent’s beliefs are sincerely held. With respect to the second and third prongs, respondent argues that because it had religiously based reasons for deciding to not renew appellant’s contract, applying the MHRA to its decision burdens the exercise of its religious beliefs, and there is no compelling state interest in applying the MHRA that is sufficient to override this burden. Respondent contends that if religious reasons are used as a basis for an employment decision, courts must decline to exercise jurisdiction because it would be impossible for a court to examine the legitimacy of the religious reasons or determine whether the reasons are pretextual without examining religious doctrine.
Respondent’s argument does not meaningfully address the compelling-state-interest balancing test because respondent completely ignores the state interest in prohibiting discrimination in employment. The Minnesota Supreme Court has recognized that the state has an “interest in prohibiting discrimination in employment.” State by McClure v. Sports & Health Club, Inc., 370 N.W.2d 844, 853 (Minn. 1985). Minn. Stat. § 363.03, subd. 1(2)(b), which makes it an unfair employment practice for an employer to discharge an employee because of disability or age, reflects this state interest.
Under the compelling-state-interest balancing test, the state’s interest in a regulation (here, the state’s interest in prohibiting discrimination in employment) is balanced against the burden that the regulation places on the exercise of religious beliefs to determine whether the state’s interest is overriding and, therefore, the regulation is constitutionally permitted in spite of the burden it places on the exercise of religious beliefs. Rather than acknowledging the state’s interest in prohibiting discrimination and addressing the balance between the state’s interest and the burden that Minn. Stat. § 363.03, subd. 1(2)(b), places on the exercise of its religious beliefs, respondent simply asserts that there is no compelling state interest in applying the MHRA that is sufficient to override this burden.
Respondent’s analysis of the compelling-state-interest balancing test also fails to specifically identify the burden that Minn. Stat. § 363.03, subd. 1(2)(b), places on the exercise of its religious beliefs. Respondent argues that its religious reasons for not renewing appellant’s contract were that appellant’s demeanor was not what was expected from a Christian teacher; appellant had fallen out of church attendance and regular Bible study; appellant was told that she must adhere to the spiritual and behavioral standards of the school; and there were concerns about appellant’s spiritual testimony and her personal relationship with Christ. But respondent does not explain how Minn. Stat. § 363.03, subd. 1(2)(b), which prohibits an employer from discharging an employee because of disability or age, burdens respondent’s beliefs about the religious qualifications that its teachers should possess.
Respondent’s argument that it would be impossible for a court to examine the legitimacy of the religious reasons for an employee discharge or determine whether the reasons are pretextual without examining religious doctrine reflects a misunderstanding of the method of proof in an MHRA action. Where direct evidence of discrimination is lacking, Minnesota courts apply the three-part, burden-shifting analysis established in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 802-04, 93 S. Ct. 1817, 1824-25 (1973), to analyze claims arising under the MHRA. Dietrich v. Canadian Pac. Ltd., 536 N.W.2d 319, 323 (Minn. 1995). Under the burden-shifting analysis, the burden of production shifts, but the burden of persuasion remains with the plaintiff. Goins v. West Group, 635 N.W.2d 717, 724 (Minn. 2001) (citing Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods. Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 142-43, 120 S. Ct. 2097, 2106 (2001)).
The employee first bears the burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence a prima facie case of discrimination. Sigurdson v. Isanti County, 386 N.W.2d 715, 720 (Minn. 1986). If the employee succeeds in proving a prima facie case, a presumption arises that the employer unlawfully discriminated against the employee, and the burden of production shifts to the employer to present evidence of some legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for its actions. Id. If the employer meets this burden, the presumption of discrimination no longer exists, and the employee must then prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the reason or justification offered by the employer is pretext for discrimination. Hoover v. Norwest Private Mortgage Banking, 632 N.W.2d 534, 542 (Minn. 2001). The employee may meet “this burden 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, 386 N.W.2d at 720 (quotation omitted).
Respondent’s argument suggests that respondent believes that when an employee of a religious educational institution establishes a prima facie case of discrimination and the employer presents evidence of a religious reason for its actions, the court must examine the institution’s religious doctrine to determine whether the religious reason is a legitimate religious reason. But when a religious institution presents evidence of a religious reason for its actions as an employer, the court’s task is not to determine whether the religious reason is legitimately based on religious doctrine, the court’s task is to determine whether the religious reason is the real reason for the employer’s actions. Describing the employer’s reason for its actions as a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason is intended only to distinguish between a nondiscriminatory reason, which is a legitimate reason, and a discriminatory reason, which is not a legitimate reason.
We acknowledge that being required to participate in even a limited judicial review of a discharge decision places some burden on respondent and raises the possibility that the court will inquire into religious doctrine. But this burden is comparable to the burden of negotiating about the conditions of employment that was at issue in Hill-Murray, and in that case the supreme court rejected the religious school-employer’s assertion “that negotiations about conditions of employment will lead to negotiations about religion.” Hill-Murray, 487 N.W.2d at 866. The supreme court concluded that “[t]his assertion is remote and an insufficient basis to exempt [the school] from the regulatory laws of the state.” Id.
There may be instances when a court would need to inquire into religious doctrine in order to determine whether a claimed religious reason for an employer’s action is the real reason for the action. But respondent has not demonstrated that an inquiry into religious doctrine is necessary in this case, and therefore, respondent has not demonstrated that judicial consideration of appellant’s MHRA claims places a burden on respondent’s exercise of religious beliefs that outweighs the state’s interest in prohibiting discrimination in employment.
Excessive entanglement with religion
Respondent also argues that the district court did not have subject-matter jurisdiction to consider appellant’s MHRA claims because judicial review of respondent’s decision to not renew appellant’s contract would constitute an excessive entanglement with religion and violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment. The First Amendment prohibits the government from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion.” U.S. Const. amend. I. To comply with the First Amendment, “a state action must have a secular purpose, must neither inhibit nor advance religion in its primary effect, and must not foster excessive governmental entanglement with religion.” Odenthal, 649 N.W.2d at 435. As we have already discussed, the MHRA has a secular purpose and it neither inhibits nor advances religion as its primary effect; the issue is whether the law fosters excessive governmental entanglement with religion.
“Under the entanglement doctrine, a state may not inquire into or review the internal decisionmaking or governance of a religious institution.” Id. “There is no entanglement problem, however, when the dispute can be resolved according to ‘neutral principles of law’—that is, by rules or standards that have been developed and are applied without particular regard to religious institutions or doctrines.” Id. (quotation omitted).
Respondent argues that judicial review of its decision to not renew appellant’s teaching contract would require an inquiry into the strength of the school’s claims that appellant was discharged for religious reasons. But, as we have already stated in our discussion of respondent’s argument that judicial consideration of appellant’s MHRA claim violates the freedom-of-conscience clause of the Minnesota Constitution, respondent has not explained why it is necessary to inquire into the validity of respondent’s religious reasons for discharging in order to determine whether the religious reasons were the real reasons for the discharge. Therefore, respondent failed to establish that judicial consideration of appellant’s MHRA claims would foster excessive governmental entanglement with religion. The district court correctly determined that it has subject-matter jurisdiction over appellant’s claims.
Appellant challenges the summary judgment granted respondent on her disability-discrimination claim. In an appeal from summary judgment, the appellate court will determine whether there are any genuine issues of material fact and whether the district court erred in its application of law. State by Cooper v. French, 460 N.W.2d 2, 4 (Minn. 1990). The evidence will be viewed in the light most favorable to the party against whom summary judgment was granted. Fabio v. Bellomo, 504 N.W.2d 758, 761 (Minn. 1993).
“Under the MHRA, it is an unfair employment practice for an employer to discharge or otherwise discriminate against an employee because of the employee’s disability.” Hoover, 632 N.W.2d at 542; Minn. Stat. § 363.03, subd. 1(2)(b) (2002). Under the McDonnell-Douglas test, the plaintiff in a discriminatory-discharge claim establishes a prima facie case by showing that she “(1) is a member of [a] protected class; (2) was qualified for the position from which she was discharged; and (3) was replaced by a non-member of the protected class.” Hoover, 632 N.W.2d at 542 (quotation omitted). When a discriminatory-discharge claim is based on disability discrimination, the protected class is people with disabilities, and to establish a prima facie case, the plaintiff must produce evidence establishing that she has a disability. Id.
The dispute here is whether appellant met her burden of showing that she has a disability. Disability is defined as
any condition or characteristic that renders a person a disabled person. A disabled person is any person who (1) has a physical, sensory, or mental impairment which materially limits one or more major life activities; (2) has a record of such an impairment; or (3) is regarded as having such an impairment.
Minn. Stat. § 363.01, subd. 13 (2000).
A. Whether appellant has an impairment
Appellant contends that she produced evidence that shows that her diabetes is a physical impairment “which materially limits one or more major life activities.” Id.
Working is a major life activity and diabetes is an impairment. Sigurdson v. Carl Bolander & Sons, Co., 532 N.W.2d 225, 228 (Minn. 1995). But the issue is whether appellant’s diabetes materially limits her ability to work. “The degree to which a condition limits one or more major life activities is evaluated based on the plaintiff’s specific circumstances.” Hoover, 632 N.W.2d at 543.
Appellant contends that her ability to work was limited because (1) she had to take medical leave on occasion; (2) after fracturing her foot, she required assistance in the classroom; and (3) her eye problems led to poor vision, which required her to make accommodations such as using a magnifying glass or enlarging her teaching materials.
Appellant has presented no authority supporting her contention that going on medical leave constitutes a material impairment. See Liljedahl v. Ryder Student Transp. Servs., Inc., 341 F.3d 836, 841 (8th Cir. 2003) (holding that where claimant had successful cancer surgery with limited recuperation period, record did not support determination that cancer materially affected any major life activities). Vision problems do not constitute a disability when through medication, eye glasses, assistive devices, or the body’s own ability to compensate, the individual’s disability is mitigated and the individual is not substantially limited in the major activity of seeing. Albertson’s, Inc. v. Kirkingburg, 527 U.S. 555, 565-66, 119 S. Ct. 2162, 2168-69 (1999) (monocular vision); Sutton v. United Airlines, Inc., 527 U.S. 471, 482-83, 119 S. Ct. 2139, 2146-47 (1999) (severe myopia). Although appellant produced evidence that she has poor vision, she is able to see with assistive devices, and the record does not show that her ability to work is materially limited by her poor vision. See Hayes v. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minn., Inc., 21 F.Supp.2d 960, 974 (D. Minn. 1998) (where limitations from diabetes did not prevent plaintiff from performing job tasks or impede efforts in finding work, plaintiff did not show that she was disabled within meaning of MHRA).
B. Record of disability
Appellant argues that by showing that (1) she notified respondent upon hiring that she was diabetic and (2) she took numerous leaves of absence for surgical procedures for her eyes, she showed that she had a record of disability. Minn. Stat. § 363.01, subd. 13(2). To support her claim, appellant cites Sch. Bd. of Nassau County v. Arline, 480 U.S. 273, 281, 107 S. Ct. 1123, 1127 (1987) (holding hospitalization for tuberculosis sufficient to establish person had record of impairment and was a handicapped individual under the Federal Rehabilitation Act). But Arline offers little guidance because that case includes no details about the length of the hospitalization or the severity of the affliction, and courts have rejected the theory that “any” hospitalization was sufficient to show a “record of impairment.” Taylor v. U.S. Postal Serv., 946 F.2d 1214, 1217 (6th Cir. 1991); see Byrne v. Bd. of Educ., 979 F.2d 560, 566 (7th Cir. 1992) (rejecting claim that single hospitalization stay for administration of allergy tests creates “record of impairment”). Simply having a medical condition and taking time off work to receive treatment for the condition does not establish a record of disability.
C. Regarded as having a disability
Finally, appellant contends that she established a genuine issue whether respondent regarded her as having an impairment that materially limited one or more major life activities. Minn. Stat. § 363.01, subd. 13(1). This category of disability applies to individuals who “possess physical characteristics which an employer may perceive as limiting even though the [individual] is qualified to perform the job.” State by Cooper v. Hennepin County, 441 N.W.2d 106, 112 (Minn. 1989).
Appellant contends that respondent knew about her diabetes and the complications of her diabetes and that there was a fact inference that respondent regarded these conditions as substantially limited. But the only evidence that appellant cites as showing respondent’s perception of her conditions is a portion of appellant’s last employment evaluation, which was prepared by the school principal and states:
On two different occasions, [appellant] did not know that I was in the room observing for 3 minutes the first time, and 10 minutes the second time. Both times students were working at their desks and [appellant] was correcting work at her desk, without scanning the class, or roaming to assist children. While some students will seek out a teacher for help, others will not and need to know that help will come to them. There is also a “distance” created between staff and students when too much time is spent behind a desk.
Appellant contends that these statements, together with respondent’s expressed concerns about appellant’s absenteeism, establish a permissible factual inference that respondent regarded appellant as having vision and ambulation disabilities. We disagree. The evidence indicates only that respondent knew that appellant did not look around or walk around in the classroom. It does not support an inference that respondent believed that disabilities prevented appellant from looking or walking around.
The district court did not err when it concluded that appellant did not present evidence sufficient to establish that she has a disability, and, therefore, did not establish a prima facie case of disability discrimination.
The district court found that there were genuine issues of material fact about whether appellant was qualified to continue employment and denied respondent’s motion for summary judgment on appellant’s age-discrimination claim. Respondent argues that even if appellant demonstrated a prima facie case of age discrimination, it was still entitled to summary judgment because it articulated legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for its decision to not renew appellant’s contract and appellant failed to show that the reasons were pretextual.
But because the district court determined that there were genuine issues of material fact with respect to appellant’s prima facie case of age discrimination, the district court did not consider whether respondent’s articulated reasons for not renewing appellant’s contract were pretextual. A reviewing court must generally consider only those issues that the record shows were presented and considered by the district court in deciding the matter before it. Thiele v. Stich, 425 N.W.2d 580, 582 (Minn. 1988). Therefore, because the district court has not considered whether respondent’s articulated reasons for not renewing appellant’s contract were pretextual, we will not consider this issue for the first time on appeal, and respondent’s appeal from the denial of its motion for summary judgment on appellant’s age-discrimination claim is dismissed.
Affirmed in part, appeal dismissed in part.