Case of the Month: June 2009

What Constitutes Reprisal Discrimination? A Minnesota Appeals Court Agrees with MDHR's Interpretation

state of Minnesota Court of Appeals File A08-1367

Elen Bahr, Appellant
Capella University, Respondent

The Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA) prohibits an employer from engaging in reprisal because an employee has filed a charge of discrimination or otherwise opposed a discriminatory practice. But what happens if the employee's charge of discrimination cannot be proven? Is the employee still protected from reprisal? To succeed in proving reprisal discrimination, must an employee show that the practice he or she opposed was actually discriminatory? Or is it sufficient for that employee to show that he or she had a good faith, reasonable belief that discrimination had occurred?

That was the issue facing the Minnesota Court of Appeals in May 2009 when it decided the case of Elen Bahr vs. Capella University. Bahr had been terminated by Capella University; she alleged that her termination had resulted from her repeated complaints that an individual she supervised was receiving differential treatment because of her race. Bahr had expressed her concern that this individual had performance issues, but was allegedly discouraged from placing this employee on a performance improvement plan, because the University was concerned that the employee might file a charge of race discrimination as a result. Bahr believed that her employer's disparate treatment of this employee was undermining the performance of her team, and unfair to the employee who deserved an opportunity to improve her performance.

After Bahr was terminated, she filed a reprisal claim in Hennepin County District Court under the state Human Rights Act. Her employer maintained that her claim could not succeed because she had failed to plead facts that constituted an actual occurrence of illegal discrimination. The District Court agreed with the employer, and dismissed Bahr's claim.

When the case came before the Court of Appeals, the Minnesota Department of Human Rights filed an amicus brief on Bahr's behalf. The department argued for the standard by which it evaluates a charging party’s reprisal claim under the Minnesota Human Rights Act. By that standard, an employee charging reprisal discrimination need not prove that the conduct he or she had opposed was in fact illegal under the Act, as long as there are sufficient facts to show that he or she had a “good-faith, reasonable belief” that the practice opposed was discriminatory.

In its opinion, the Court of Appeals adopted the department’s position, and reversed the District Court’s earlier ruling. In rejecting the respondent’s arguments, the Court looked to federal law for guidance, citing the similarity between the MHRA reprisal statute and the retaliation provisions contained in Title VII. The Court interpreted the MHRA reprisal statute to have a subjective good-faith standard (as is the case in the federal statute), and held that a charging party’s belief that his or her employer was engaged in discrimination needs only to be objectively reasonable in light of the facts presented.

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