One of the most common concerns we hear from employees is that their boss retaliated against them because they made a complaint. In fact, recent data from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission suggests that over 50% of all employment discrimination claims involve retaliation. When victims of workplace retaliation reach out to us, they want to know if what has happened to them is illegal.
Is workplace retaliation illegal? Yes, under certain circumstances. Most Minnesota employment laws provide three requirements to prove illegal workplace retaliation.
The Complaint Must Be “Protected”
To trigger legal protections under Minnesota employment laws, victims of retaliation must generally have engaged in “protected conduct.” Put simply, an employee usually engages in protected conduct when they complain about or report illegal workplace behavior to their employer or a government agency (or refuse to participate in/oppose illegal workplace behavior). For example, an employee’s complaint to human resources that their boss is discriminating against them on the basis of their race, gender, disability, age, or sexual orientation is protected under the Minnesota Human Rights Act. Likewise, a medical professional’s complaint that their employer is violating patient care standards likely constitutes protected activity under the Minnesota Whistleblower Act. Complaints that do not concern illegal conduct are generally not “protected” under Minnesota law.
The Employee Must Have Suffered an “Adverse Action”
Most Minnesota employment laws are clear that an employee must have suffered an “adverse action” for a successful retaliation claim. Clear examples of adverse actions are terminations, demotions, pay cuts, and suspensions. Beyond these clear examples, whether retaliatory behavior is sufficiently adverse to trigger legal significance depends on the facts and circumstances of the particular case. Simply by way of example, in the discrimination context, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that transferring an employee to a harder, dirtier job within the same pay grade was an adverse action that could be challenged as retaliation. By contrast, as summarized by the EEOC, “petty slights, minor annoyances, and trivial punishments” are not adverse actions and courts have found, for example, that “temporarily transferring an employee from an office to a cubicle” or that “occasional brief delays by an employer in issuing refund checks to an employee” were not actionable adverse actions.
There Must Be a “Causal Connection” Between the Protected Complaint and the Adverse Action
To successfully prove a retaliation claim, an employee must show that they suffered an adverse action because of their protected complaint. In other words, they must show evidence of a “causal connection” between their complaint and the retaliation they suffered. Common examples of such evidence include: close timing between the complaint and the adverse action; an employer’s hostile reaction to the complaint; toleration of performance issues before the complaint that suddenly become discipline-worthy after the complaint; sham rationales for the adverse action that lack credibility; and others.
If you believe you are the victim of illegal workplace retaliation, we strongly recommend you reach out to an experienced Minnesota retaliation attorney for a consultation. We here at Schaefer Halleen would be happy to connect with you.