may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (1996).
STATE OF MINNESOTA
IN COURT OF APPEALS
B.L.L., et al.,
The Estate of Keith Heller, et al.,
Filed December 29, 1998
Hennepin County District Court
File No. 9516396
Jordan S. Kushner, Sexton Building, Suite 636, 529 South Seventh St., Minneapolis, MN 55415 (for respondents)
Mary G. Dobbins, Mary G. Dobbins & Associates, 7400 Metro Boulevard, Suite 100, Edina, MN 55439 (for appellants)
Considered and decided by Amundson, Presiding Judge, Klaphake, Judge, and Mulally, Judge.
Appellants in this sexual harassment case contest the trial court's: (1) failure to explicitly apply the McDonnell Douglas analysis; (2) determination that the sexual contact between respondent and her employer, Keith Heller, was unwelcome; (3) admission of testimony regarding Heller's previous sexual misconduct; and (4) imposition of joint and several liability on Heller and the business entities for whom respondent performed services. We affirm.
Respondent B.L.L. was employed by Cedar Riverside Development Corporation (CRDC), a business controlled by Keith Heller. Heller also maintained control over all management and financial decisions of Cedar Riverside Land Company (CRL Co.), Cedar Riverside Land Corporation (CRL Corp.), and Cedar Riverside Properties (CRP) during respondent's employment with CRDC. Respondent performed clerical work for each of these companies, but primarily worked on property management for CRL Co. and served as a community liaison for CRDC. Respondent also provided home care to Heller, who was impaired by various medical conditions.
In 1995, respondent filed a sexual harassment suit against appellants, alleging that, during the course of her employment, Heller repeatedly engaged in unwelcome sexual contact with her by: (1) touching her breasts; (2) placing her hands on his crotch; (3) attempting to remove items of her clothing; and (4) pressuring her to get into a hot tub with him. At trial, respondent testified that she told Heller his advances were "not right" and tried to avoid his groping.
Four of Heller's former employees testified that, during their employment, Heller subjected them to similar unwelcome sexual contact. W.S. testified that Heller repeatedly grabbed her breasts and placed her hands on his legs. L.J. testified that Heller had hugged her and held her hand. J.M. testified that Heller repeatedly grabbed her breasts and used her hand to masturbate him. J.G. testified that Heller grabbed her breasts on several occasions. In his testimony, Heller did not deny any of the sexual contacts alleged by his former employees, but argued that such contact had always been initiated by those employees and was entirely consensual.
The trial court found that Heller had initiated a "continual pattern of sexual contacts" with respondent and that Heller "knew or had reason to know that such contacts, while tolerated, were generally unwelcomed" by respondent. The court entered judgment against Heller's estate (Heller died shortly after trial), CRDC, CRP, CRL Co., and CRL Corp. Appellants' motion for amended findings or a new trial was denied.
Minnesota courts have adopted the burden-shifting analysis set forth in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 93 S. Ct. 1817 (1973), for cases involving sexual harassment. Klink v. Ramsey County by Zacharias, 397 N.W.2d 894, 900 (Minn. App. 1986), review denied (Minn. Feb. 13, 1987). Under McDonnell Douglas, the plaintiff must first establish a prima facie case of harassment. Id. at 901. The burden then shifts to the defendant, who must establish a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for such actions; if the defendant meets this burden, the plaintiff must then demonstrate that the defendant's proffered justification is merely a pretext for discrimination. Sigurdson v. Isanti County, 386 N.W.2d 715, 720 (Minn. 1986).
Citing Bersie v. Zycad Corp., 399 N.W.2d 141, 145 (Minn. App. 1987), appellant argues that, because the trial court made no reference to the McDonnell Douglas analysis in its order for judgment, this case must be remanded for more complete findings. But where a trial court has clearly applied the McDonnell Douglas analysis in its decision, even without citing that specific case, reversal or remand for additional findings is unnecessary. Kresko v. Rulli, 432 N.W.2d 764, 771 (Minn. App. 1988), review denied (Minn. Jan. 31, 1989); see also Hubbard v. United Press Int'l, Inc., 330 N.W.2d 428, 443 n.15 (Minn. 1983) (failure to expressly consider McDonnell Douglas factors does not require remand for new findings where court's "findings and explanation of his decision are sufficiently complete to permit us to review the record and the decision below within the McDonnell-Douglas framework").
Here, the trial court's decision is sufficiently detailed that we may review it within the burden-shifting framework established in McDonnell Douglas. The court's findings make it clear that respondent established a prima facie case of sexual harassment, that Heller failed to articulate a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for his actions, and that judgment was properly entered in respondent's favor. The trial court's analysis is complete; remand for additional findings is unnecessary.
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.
Appellants contest the trial court's finding that the sexual contact between Heller and respondent was unwelcome. Appellants point to several cards, given to Heller by respondent and signed "love," as proof that Heller's sexual contact with respondent was welcomed. But these cards are innocuous, containing only general statements of gratitude or sympathy. Appellants also point to several inconsistencies in respondent's recall of her sexual encounters with Heller. But these inconsistencies are meaningless in light of Heller's testimonial admission that those encounters occurred. The inconsistencies in respondent's testimony do not weaken the general credibility of her allegations.
There is ample evidentiary support for the trial court's determination that respondent did not welcome Heller's sexual advances. Respondent testified that she repeatedly told Heller his advances were "not right," wore extra clothing to make it more difficult for Heller to grope her, and tried to thwart his verbal advances by changing the subject. We give "due regard" to the trial court's determination that respondent's testimony was credible. Id. There was no clear error.
Admission of evidence "rests within the broad discretion of the trial court" and will not be disturbed on appeal unless it was legally erroneous or "constitutes an abuse of discretion." Uselman v. Uselman, 464 N.W.2d 130, 138 (Minn. 1990).
Evidence of another crime, wrong, or act is not admissible to prove the character of a person in order to show action in conformity therewith. It may, however, be admissible for other purposes, such as proof of motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, or absence of mistake or accident.
Minn. R. Evid. 404(b).
Appellants argue that the trial court abused its discretion by admitting testimony from four of Heller's former employees regarding his prior acts of sexual harassment. But that testimony was received for its probative value to show Heller's intent and motive to harass his female employees, not to show his character or "action in conformity therewith." Compare Kay v. Peter Motor Co., 483 N.W.2d 481, 486 (Minn. App. 1992) (testimony of other employees admissible when offered to demonstrate employer's intent to make harassing comments, knowledge of offensive nature of his remarks, and motive to make such remarks), with Kresko, 432 N.W.2d at 768-69 (excluding testimony offered to demonstrate that employer's past relationships with other female employees showed pattern or habit of harassing conduct). The trial court's decision to admit that testimony was not an abuse of discretion.
Appellants argue that the trial court erred by imposing joint and several liability on Heller's estate, CRDC, CRL Co., CRL Corp., and CRLC. Appellants argue that, because respondent was technically employed only by CRDC, only CRDC can be liable for damages arising from respondent's employment relationship.
To determine whether separate corporate entities may be liable as a single employer under the MHRA, the court must consider: "(1) interrelation of operations; (2) common management; (3) centralized control of labor relations; and (4) common ownership or financial control." Johns v. Harborage I, Ltd., ___ N.W.2d ___, ___, No. C8-98-301, slip op. at 9 (Minn. App. Nov. 17, 1998).
Appellants have stipulated that Heller "maintained and exercised control over all management and financial decisions for the various Cedar-Riverside entities" and retained "final decision-making authority" over the affairs of those companies while respondent was employed by CRDC. Further, it is undisputed that respondent performed services, in some capacity, for each entity. This constitutes sufficient proof that the Cedar-Riverside entities were a unified, integrated business operation, and that liability under the MHRA was appropriate. The trial court did not err in imposing joint and several liability on Heller and the other appellants.
We do not credit appellants' argument that Heller cannot be held personally liable for damages under the MHRA because respondent was employed in his "domestic service." See Minn. Stat. § 363.02, subd. 1(1)(b) (Supp. 1997) (exempting domestic workers from protection of Minn. Stat. § 363.03, subd. 1). Respondent's domestic obligations on Heller's behalf were only a small portion of her total job responsibilities and do not furnish a defense to liability.
The trial court did not err by: (1) failing to explicitly apply the McDonnell Douglas analysis to the facts of this case; (2) finding that the sexual contact initiated by Heller was not welcomed by respondent; (3) admitting testimony from Heller's former employees regarding his prior acts of sexual harassment; and (4) imposing joint and several liability on Heller and the business entities for whom respondent performed services.
[*] Retired judge of the district court, serving as judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals pursuant to Minn. Const. art. VI, § 10.