Both U.S. and Minnesota law require employers with more than fifteen employees to provide reasonable accommodations to disabled workers, but the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and the Minnesota Human Rights Act (“MHRA”) provisions aren’t identical, and the differences can be important. Procedurally, a plaintiff must file a federal claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) or the Minnesota Department of Human Rights (“MDHR”) before going to court. The MDHR and EEOC are both empowered to investigate both state and federal claims, and a plaintiff has to “exhaust administrative remedies” with one of these agencies to pursue a federal cause of action. If a plaintiff chooses to pursue only state claims, going straight to court becomes an option.
For a couple of years, however, foregoing the ADA option and going straight to court in Minnesota meant a plaintiff could not claim an employer had failed to engage in a back and forth “interactive process” to determine if a reasonable accommodation might work. Last year the state legislature eliminated that difference, and Minnesota law is now stronger than the ADA on the interactive process issue. The history of this flip-flop is both encouraging for disability discrimination plaintiffs and a good example of how statutory amendment can undo bad judicial decisions.
The History of the Flip-Flop
Neither the ADA nor the original MHRA explicitly addressed the interactive process requirement, but federal regulations under the ADA provided that to “determine the appropriate reasonable accommodation it may be necessary for the covered entity to initiate an informal, interactive process with the individual with a disability in need of the accommodation.” Federal courts had held this requirement also applied to claims under Minnesota law, but in 2019 the Minnesota Supreme Court nonetheless held in McBee v. Team Industries Inc. that it did not. Last year the legislature effectively reversed this part of McBee by making explicit that to “determine the appropriate reasonable accommodation [an employer] shall initiate an informal, interactive process with the individual with a disability in need of the accommodation. This process should identify the limitations resulting from the disability and any potential reasonable accommodations that could overcome those limitations.”
Existing Stronger Minnesota Law
While the new statute undoes the McBee case, employees with disabilities should also be aware that the MHRA had already included other requirements absent from both the ADA and federal regulations. In particular, the Minnesota statute continues to require employers to make “documented good faith efforts to explore less restrictive or less expensive alternatives, including consultation with the disabled person or with knowledgeable disabled persons or organizations” when determining if an accommodation would impose an undue hardship on the operation of a business.
Federal and State Disability Discrimination Claims Under the New Statute
Thus, Minnesota has gone from two years of weaker than federal law to a new statutory framework that is stronger than federal law on the interactive process question. Other differences between federal and state law may dictate what choices a plaintiff might make in a specific case. The available remedies differ in important ways, but it’s possible simultaneously to bring both federal and state claims, so long as a plaintiff “exhausts administrative remedies” by first filing with the EEOC or MDHR. Obviously, the legal landscape for disability discrimination is not simple, and plaintiffs seeking legal remedies should retain counsel as soon as possible. A plaintiff must bring federal claims within 300 days of any adverse employment action, and state claims within one year.