By Rights... Answers to Your Human Rights Questions

Harassment of student regarded as gay

My son has experienced harassment in school for the past year. He is in 10th grade and is being called "gay," "fag," "faggot," and "stupid." My son is straight, but has had to endure the name-calling for a long time. He was recently shoved so hard while getting a book out of his locker that the top of his nose was split down the middle, and he had to be taken to the Emergency Room. My son, once a B Honor Roll student, is now getting F's and D's in all classes but one, and has been depressed for months. I also have another son who has Asperger's syndrome, and the other kids call him retard to my 10th grade son, saying, "you have a retarded brother." This happens in class, and the teachers do nothing to stop it. Can you help us?

The Commissioner says:

If your son is being harassed at school because he is perceived by other students to be gay, and the harassment is pervasive enough to create a hostile environment for your child, school authorities have a duty under the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA) to take timely and appropriate action reasonably calculated to stop the harassment, when they know or should know that such conduct is occurring. If you have raised the issue with school authorities and they have not acted to remedy the situation, you may wish to contact us at 651-539-1100 or Toll Free 1-800-657-3704 to discuss filing a charge of discrimination.

With respect to your other son's situation, disability is also a protected characteristic under the MHRA. And if your other child is being harassed because he has, or is perceived to have, a disability, school authorities also have a duty to take appropriate action. If your child with Asperger's syndrome is not being harassed directly, but comments about him are being made to your non-disabled son, it is possible that these harassing comments could also result in a claim under the MHRA. The MHRA protects individuals from discrimination because of their association with persons who are, or are perceived to be, disabled. Thus, you may also wish to discuss the comments related to your son's Asperger's syndrome with us at 651-539-1100 or Toll Free 1-800-657-3704. Please note that under the Act, charges must be filed within one year of the date the discrimination took place.

COLA denied for nonunion workers

I am an employee for a Minnesota county. We were told that cost of living allowances (COLAs) would not be given out this year to any county employee, union or non-union. But I have just found out that the union employees are in fact receiving their COLAs for 2010, while the non-union employees are not. Is this discrimination? And is it legal?

The Commissioner says:

Under the Minnesota Human Rights Act, it is illegal to discriminate in employment based on certain characteristics that are specifically protected, such as race, religion, color, creed, age, gender, disability, national origin and sexual orientation, among others. But an employer may treat employees differently for reasons not covered under the Act, including union vs. nonunion status. While such treatment may or may not seem fair, it would not be considered illegal under the Act.

Does employee need letter from physician?

My physician has written a prescription requesting that I not be scheduled to work a night shift at our agency. I have forwarded this prescription to the human resources (HR) department here at work, who emailed me that we may need to have further discussion about this matter. I have several physical health and mental health concerns surrounding a scheduling change at our agency. If HR wants to discuss this topic with me, do I need to go into detail over what my problems are, or should I get a detailed letter from my physician and therapist?

The Commissioner says:

The Human Rights Act compels employers with 15 or more employees to fully consider whether or not an employee with a disability can perform the essential duties of the position in question, with or without reasonable accommodation (which may include part-time employment in that position), provided it does not impose undue hardship on the employer or pose a risk to health or safety. When the disability and/or the need for accommodation is not obvious, the employer may ask the individual for reasonable documentation about his/her disability and functional limitations. The employer is entitled to know that the individual has a disability for which reasonable accommodation is needed; however, an employer cannot ask for documentation that is unrelated to determining the existence of a disability and the necessity for an accommodation. In most situations, an employer cannot request a person's complete medical records because they are likely to contain information unrelated to the disability at issue and the need for accommodation.

Your employer may be satisfied with talking to you about your situation, but employers are permitted to make mental or physical impairment-related inquiries of doctors, with employee consent, if they are reasonable and necessary to the effort to make accommodation of a disability or confirm the medical necessity of continuing to provide an accommodation.

Sexual comments and whistleblower law

I spoke to the general manager at the country club where I work for about some sexual comments that have been made to me by my direct supervisor. What are my rights regarding any further interaction with my supervisor, and am I covered by any law for being a whistleblower?

The Commissioner says:

The Minnesota Human Rights Act prohibits sexual harassment, which includes, among other prohibitions, "verbal or physical conduct or communication of a sexual nature" when that conduct or communication "has the purpose or effect of substantially interfering with an individual's employment." When an employer knows or should know that sexual harassment is occurring, the employer has a duty under the Act to take timely and appropriate action reasonably calculated to ensure that the harassment stops. The Act also prohibits reprisal, which would include any form of retaliation against an employee because they opposed a practice forbidden under the Act -- such as sexual harassment. Not every incident of offensive behavior, even if sexual in nature, would rise to the level of substantially interfering with an individual's employment. But if an employee complains about or otherwise opposes conduct that he or she believes to be illegal under the Act -- including sexual harassment -- to retaliate against an employee because of that complaint would constitute reprisal.

We cannot determine how an individual's rights might apply in a specific situation, without knowing the facts of the matter. But you believe that you are experiencing reprisal because you complained about sexual harassment or another practice that is illegal under the Act, you may wish to contact us at 651-539-1100 or Toll Free 1-800-657-3704 to discuss your situation further.

Abusive employer just yells louder

Is having an employer stand over your desk, yelling, swearing and verbally abusing you a cause for a discrimination case? He will not listen to explanations. He just yells louder.

The Commissioner says:

Whether a boss's behavior might constitute discrimination under the Minnesota Human Rights Act would depend upon why he is apparently acting in an abusive manner. A charge of discrimination must be based on a characteristic specifically protected under the Act. In employment, these protected characteristics include race, religion, gender, color, creed, national origin, disability, age, sexual orientation and others. So if your boss's verbal abuse or other objectionable behavior somehow relates to your race, gender, age, or another protected characteristic, you may wish to contact us at 651-539-1100 or Toll Free 1-800-657-3704 to discuss your situation further. However, if your boss is yelling for some other reason unrelated to a protected characteristic, such behavior may be unfair and counterproductive, but it is probably not illegal under the Human Rights Act.

Is requiring applicant to list all jobs age discrimination?

I understand that it is illegal for prospective employers to ask your date of birth. Recently, I applied to a Twin Cities school district that did not ask for date of birth, but did require that I list all jobs I have had my whole life! This listing of jobs (mine went back to the early 70's) in essence will give the employer a fair estimate of an applicant's actual age. Did the school district violate any law? If not, perhaps this kind of question is a loophole that should be closed.

The Commissioner says:

The Minnesota Human Rights Act provides that it is an unfair practice for an employer to "require or request the person to furnish information that pertains to race, color, creed, religion, national origin, sex, marital status, status with regard to public assistance, disability, sexual orientation, or age..." With few exceptions, it is discriminatory not to hire someone due to age.

Employers are not prohibited from inquiring about an employee's entire work history, even though this information may lead to an inference about the applicant's age. In some cases, employers may be held liable for negligent hiring if they do not verify applicants' conduct at past employers. But if you believe an employer has used your lengthy employment history to draw an inference of your age, and then decided not to hire you because of your age, you may wish to contact us at 651-539-1100 or Toll Free 1-800-657-3704 to discuss filing a charge of discrimination. The fact that the employer gathered that information would help you establish that the employer was aware of your approximate age at the time it made its hiring decision.

Can condo bylaws keep out kids?

I live in a condo in Minneapolis, and my condo association has policy in its bylaws that states that no child 18 years of age or younger shall be permitted to reside in any unit, or stay there as a visitor or guest, except on a temporary basis for no more than 30 days. I have not been discriminated against directly by this policy. However, I was denied refinancing by my mortgage company because of it. I told the condo association board and they acknowledge that this policy is outdated and possibly illegal. But they will not change the bylaws, since they don't plan to enforce the policy.

Some questions: Is this policy illegal? Does the board have a legal obligation to remove it from the bylaws? Or if the board won't remove it, does the board have a legal obligation to enforce it, since its in the bylaws, even if it is illegal? I really want to refinance, but I'm finding it difficult with this policy in the bylaws. My bank wouldn't even look at my application, and the entire condo building is on a "no loan" list.

The Commissioner says:

Under the Minnesota Human Rights Act, it is illegal to refuse to sell, rent, or lease any real property because of familial status. The Act defines "familial status," in part, as the condition of one or more minor children living with a parent or legal guardian. So a landlord or condo association that refuses to rent to a family with children or to allow children to live with their parents, because of familial status, would be in violation of the Act. The Act provides exemptions that may apply in certain cases. For example, the provisions against discrimination based on familial status do not apply to an owner-occupied building containing four or fewer units, or to housing for elderly persons, intended for and occupied by persons 62 or older, or 55 or older in some cases. Landlords may also legally refuse to permit children if their presence would conflict with city ordinances or other laws restricting the maximum number of people who can live in any one unit, but these maximum-occupancy rules may not be applied in a discriminatory fashion to restrict occupancy by families with children and not others.

You may wish to contact our us at 651-539-1100 or Toll Free 1-800-657-3704 to discuss your situation further and the possibility of filing a charge under the Minnesota Human Rights Act. We cannot speak to the other legal issues your email raises, or to other recourses you may have with respect to the condo association's rules and your relationship with a potential lender. For those issues, you may wish to consult with a private attorney. The Department of Human Rights cannot give legal advice.

The answers in these columns are not intended as legal advice. The Department of Human Rights does not make a judgment on any case without carefully examining all the facts.

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