This opinion will be unpublished and

may not be cited except as provided by

Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2004).







JoAnne C. Hinckley,





Independent School District #2167, et al.,



David Louwagie, et al.,




Filed August 8, 2006

Toussaint, Chief Judge


Lyon County District Court

File No. C9-03-965



Ronald R. Frauenshuh, Jr., 129 Northwest Second Street, Ortonville, MN  56278 (for appellant)


Sally J. Ferguson, Paul E. D. Darsow, Arthur, Chapman, Kettering, Smetak & Pikala, P.A., 500 Young Quinlan Building, 81 South Ninth Street, Minneapolis, MN  55402-3214 (for respondents Independent School District #2167, David Fjeldheim, and Erik Broering)



            Considered and decided by Stoneburner, Presiding Judge; Toussaint, Chief Judge; and Dietzen, Judge.

U N P U B L I S H E D   O P I N I O N

TOUSSAINT, Chief Judge

            Appellant JoAnne C. Hinckley brought an action under the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA), alleging gender discrimination by disparate treatment and hostile work environment, reprisal discrimination, and aiding and abetting against respondents Independent School District No. 2167, and school principals David Fjeldheim and Erik Broering.  Appellant challenges the district court’s grant of summary judgment on her claim of a hostile work environment, its judgment after trial dismissing her claims of disparate treatment, reprisal and aiding and abetting, and its denial of her motion for a new trial.

            Because the district court did not err in granting summary judgment on appellant’s hostile work environment claim, because appellant’s claims of disparate treatment, reprisal, and aiding and abetting are unsupported by the record, and because the district court did not abuse its discretion by denying appellant’s motion for a new trial, we affirm.


            Summary judgment is appropriate when, based on the pleadings, discovery, and affidavits filed with the court, there are no genuine issues of material fact and either party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.  Minn. R. Civ. P. 56.03.  This court reviews the district court’s grant of summary judgment to determine whether there are genuine issues of material fact and whether the district court erred in its application of the law.  State by Cooper v. French, 460 N.W.2d 2, 4 (Minn. 1990).  We do not defer to the district court’s decision on a purely legal issue.  Porch v. Gen. Motors Acceptance Corp., 642 N.W.2d 2d 473, 477 (Minn. App. 2002), review denied (Minn. June 26, 2002).

            “Findings of fact, whether based on oral or documentary evidence, shall not be set aside unless clearly erroneous, and due regard shall be given to the opportunity of the trial court to judge the credibility of the witnesses.”  Minn. R. Civ. P. 52.01.  “When reviewing mixed questions of law and fact, we correct erroneous applications of law, but accord the district court discretion in its ultimate conclusions and review such conclusions under an abuse of discretion standard.”  Porch, 642 N.W.2d at 477 (quotation omitted).  Mixed questions of law and fact involve the application of found facts to statutory criteria.  See Maxfield v. Maxfield, 452 N.W.2d 219, 221 (Minn. 1990).

            A plaintiff prevails on a claim of sexual harassment based on a hostile work environment by showing

(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 of or should have known of the harassment and failed to take appropriate remedial action.


Goins v. West Group, 635 N.W.2d 717, 725 (Minn. 2001); see also Minn. Stat. § 363A.03, subd. 43 (2004) (defining “sexual harassment” to include “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, sexually motivated physical contact or other verbal or physical conduct or communication of a sexual nature”).

            The plaintiff must demonstrate that the sexual harassment was so severe or pervasive that it altered the conditions of the plaintiff’s employment and created an abusive work environment in light of the totality of the circumstances, including the frequency and severity of the conduct and whether the conduct was physically threatening or humiliating or merely offensive.  Id.  To successfully oppose summary judgment, a plaintiff must establish evidence of every element of a prima facie case.  Id.

            Here, the district court concluded that appellant failed to produce any facts showing that she individually was subject to harassment, and that therefore her claim must fail.  See Smith v. Ashland, Inc., 179 F. Supp. 2d 1065, 1070 (D. Minn. 2000) (stating that plaintiff must show harassing conduct was directed at plaintiff to establish hostile work environment).   

            According to the record, appellant was not the object of any of the sexual conduct; she acted as confidant to two female employees, who related incidents involving respondents Fjeldheim and Broering.  Appellant was neither individually harassed nor present when the alleged incidents occurred; nor were the incidents so frequent or severe as to affect the conditions of her employment or to create a pervasively hostile work environment.  Thus, appellant failed to establish an essential element of her claim.

              On this record, we conclude that the district court did not err in granting summary judgment on appellant’s claim of gender discrimination based on a hostile work environment.

            Minnesota employs the McDonnell Douglas test to analyze cases of disparate treatment.  Hoover v. Norwest Private Mortgage Banking, 632 N.W.2d 534, 542 (Minn. 2001) (citing McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 93 S. Ct. 1817 (1973)).  A plaintiff making a claim of sex discrimination based on disparate treatment must show that (1) she is a member of a protected group; (2) she was qualified for her position; and (3) she was discharged under circumstances that raise an inference of discrimination.  Bergstrom-Ek v. Best Oil Co., 153 F.3d 851, 857 (8th Cir. 1998).  Having established a prima facie case of discrimination, the burden shifts to the employer to offer a nondiscriminatory reason for its actions.  Id.  If such a reason is offered, the employee bears the ultimate burden to produce sufficient admissible evidence to permit a rational factfinder to conclude that the employer’s proffered reason is false or not the real reason for its actions.  Id. at 857-58. 

            If we assume that appellant established a prima facie case of disparate treatment, based on her gender, her qualifications, and the fact that she was discharged rather than the two male principals, Fjeldheim and Broering, respondents nevertheless have offered a nondiscriminatory reason for their actions:  because of declining enrollments, the school district sought to reduce costs by trimming administrative positions and appellant, who held only an elementary principal’s license rather than K-12 licensure, was the least qualified of the three principals.  The district court found that the district’s motivation for the reduction in positions was to save money, the district did realize cost savings, it was reasonable to do so by reducing administrative positions, and its decision to eliminate appellant’s position was based on “budgetary reasons, licensure reasons, and leadership issues.”  These findings are supported by the record and are not clearly erroneous.    

Appellant has not offered sufficient admissible evidence to rebut respondents’ proffered nondiscriminatory reason and has therefore failed to sustain her burden of proof.  The district court did not err by concluding that appellant failed to prove her claim of disparate treatment.

            The McDonnell Douglas analysis is also used to evaluate claims of reprisal.  Scott v. County of Ramsey, 180 F.3d 913, 917 (8th Cir. 1999).  To establish a prima facie case of reprisal, the plaintiff must demonstrate that he or she engaged in a protected activity, that the employer took adverse action against the plaintiff, and that there is a causal connection between the two events.  Id.  The burden shifts to the employer to offer a legitimate reason for the employment action.  Id.  If the employer offers a legitimate reason, the presumption created by the prima facie case disappears, and the factfinder must decide whether the plaintiff has proved that the employer intentionally engaged in reprisal against the plaintiff.  Id. 

            Here, appellant established that she reported sexual harassment of two employees to the district superintendent and that she suffered an adverse employment action when she was placed on unrequested leave.  The superintendent ordered an investigation of the harassment claims but did not share information about the claims, the investigation, or the outcome with the school board.  The school board made the decision to place appellant on unrequested leave, but there is no evidence that the board was aware that appellant was a reporter of harassment when the board made its decision.  Appellant has failed to demonstrate a causal connection between the protected activity and the adverse employment action.  Thus, the district court did not err by concluding that appellant had failed to prove reprisal by a preponderance of the evidence.

            It is an unfair discriminatory practice for any person to intentionally aid or abet another to engage in sexual harassment.  Minn. Stat. § 363A.14 (2004).  “Aiding and abetting” implies that persons acted in concert against another for a discriminatory purpose.  See Wallin v. Minnesota Dep’t of Corrections, 598 N.W.2d 393, 405 (Minn. App. 1999) (concluding that plaintiff failed to establish facts that defendants acted in concert in order to discriminate against plaintiff because of his disabilities), review denied (Minn. Oct. 21, 1999). 

            Appellant’s claim of aiding and abetting is based on her theory that the superintendent’s failure to report the claims of sexual harassment to the school board aided and abetted Fjeldheim’s and Broering’s unlawful conduct.  This claim must fail for the same reason that appellant’s hostile work environment claim does:  she was not the target of the harassing conduct.  See Smith, 179 F. Supp. 2d at 1070.  The district court did not err by concluding that appellant failed to establish her claim of aiding and abetting discrimination.

            The district court’s decision regarding a motion for a new trial is reviewed for an abuse of discretion.  Johnson v. Washington County, 518 N.W.2d 594, 600 (Minn. 1994).  The district court may grant a new trial for various reasons, including (1) material evidence newly discovered; (2) errors of law occurring at trial, if plainly assigned in the notice of motion; and (3) the decision is not justified by the evidence.  Minn. R. Civ. P. 59.01 (listing seven bases for a new trial).  When a motion for a new trial has been denied, the reviewing court will not reverse unless the verdict is “manifestly and palpably contrary to the evidence, viewed in a light most favorable to the verdict.”  Johns v. Harborage I, Ltd., 585 N.W.2d 853, 858 (Minn. App. 1998) (quotation omitted).

            Having reviewed the record and the district court’s findings, we conclude that the district court’s verdict is supported by the record and its denial of appellant’s motion for a new trial is not an abuse of discretion.