Employment-discrimination cases often involve a complicated combination of legal concepts. The Minnesota Supreme Court recently addressed the interaction of several such concepts, including constructive discharge, hostile work environment, and disparate treatment, in the age-discrimination case Henry v. Independent School District #625. After providing background on age discrimination claims, this blog post explains the Court’s decision and its impact on discrimination law in Minnesota.
Age Discrimination Claims under the MHRA
The Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA) prohibits age discrimination in the workplace. The Act states that an employer discriminates against an employee on the basis of age when the employer, among other things, refuses to hire a potential employee, discharges an employee, or treats an employee differently with respect to tenure, compensation, or conditions of employment, on the basis of the employee’s age.
When an employee has experienced such prohibited ageism in the workplace, they may bring several types of discrimination claims against their employer. Under a hostile-work-environment discrimination claim, an employee may hold their employer liable for age discrimination when the employer has subjected the employee to harassment on the basis of their age and that harassment has affected a term, condition, or privilege of their employment. To succeed on a such a claim, the employee must demonstrate that the employer’s harassment was so severe or pervasive that it altered the conditions of their employment and created an abusive working environment.
An employee may also bring a claim against their employer based on the employer’s disparate treatment of them based on their age. Under such a disparate-treatment discrimination claim, the employee must initially show that they belong to a protected class under the MHRA, they are qualified for their employment position, they have suffered an adverse employment action, and discrimination against them based on their age is inferable from the circumstances.
Henry v. Independent School District #625
The 57-year-old plaintiff-employee in Henry v. Independent School District #625 brought both a hostile-work-environment claim and a disparate-treatment claim against her employer. Henry alleged that, after nearly 20 years of successful employment with the School District, new management targeted her on the basis of her age. Amongst other unfair actions, the new management put Henry on a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP) based on trivial performance issues and then structured the PIP so that it would be impossible for Henry to complete it. After Henry’s manager informed her that he was considering terminating her because she had failed to meet the terms of the PIP, Henry retired before a meeting regarding the termination was set to occur.
Following a summary-judgment decision at the district court and review by the Minnesota Court of Appeals, the Minnesota Supreme Court took up review of Henry’s case. First, the Court held that, while it had never addressed a hostile-work-environment claim in the age-discrimination context, such a claim involves the same severe-or-pervasive standard as in other discrimination claims. The Court then rejected Henry’s hostile-work-environment claim, holding that the employer conduct at issue in Henry’s case “did not rise to the level of pervasiveness or severity required to demonstrate that the alleged harassment affected a term, condition, or privilege of her employment.”
The Court then addressed Henry’s disparate-treatment discrimination claim. As stated above, an employee bringing such a claim must, as an initial matter, show that she (1) belongs to a protected class; (2) is qualified for the position; (3) suffered an adverse employment action; and (4) the circumstances give rise to an inference of discrimination. Henry and the School District disputed only whether Henry had satisfied the third element.
Henry claimed that, though she retired before she could be terminated, her retirement constituted an adverse employment action because it amounted to constructive discharge. Constructive discharge has been recognized in non-age discrimination contexts. This doctrine states that an employee suffers an adverse employment action, even if the employee resigns, where the employer creates working conditions that are so intolerable that a reasonable person would feel compelled to resign.
The Supreme Court agreed with Henry that an employee “can satisfy the adverse employment action element of a disparate treatment claim under the Human Rights Act by demonstrating constructive discharge.” The Court went on describe the two elements of constructive discharge that a plaintiff must show: “(1) objectively intolerable working conditions that are (2) created by the employer with the intention of forcing the employee to quit.”
In terms of the first element, objectively intolerable working conditions, the Court rejected the School District’s argument that a plaintiff must demonstrate the intolerable working conditions arose from a hostile work environment, holding:
[T]he objectively intolerable conditions necessary to support a constructive discharge based on disparate treatment are not necessarily the same as those required to support a constructive discharge based on a hostile work environment. The requisite objectively intolerable conditions for a constructive discharge based on disparate treatment can occur when an employer acts in a manner so as to have communicated to a reasonable employee that she will be terminated, and the plaintiff employee resigns. In other words, a disparate-treatment-based constructive discharge can occur where, due to the employer’s illegal discrimination in the form of unfavorable treatment based on the employee’s protected status, the handwriting is on the wall and the axe was about to fall.
The Court also explained the second constructive-discharge element, which relates to the employer’s intent. To satisfy this element, the plaintiff employee must demonstrate either that the “employer deliberately created intolerable working conditions with the intent of forcing the employee to quit,” or “that resignation was a reasonably foreseeable consequence of the employer’s deliberate actions.” The Court rejected the requirement of some jurisdictions that the plaintiff attempt to mitigate the intolerable conditions or notify their employer of the conditions before resigning.
Applying this standard to Henry’s case, the Court held that Henry’s disparate-treatment claim must survive summary judgment and go to trial.
While the Minnesota Supreme Court did not overhaul the age-discrimination law in Henry, the Court did clarify several legal concepts that will be helpful for Minnesota employees bringing age-discrimination claims going forward. The Court explicitly recognized that 1) employees may bring age-discrimination claims based on a hostile work environment, and 2) constructive discharge may satisfy the adverse-employment-action element of a disparate-treatment discrimination claim. Finally, the Court clarified the standard for proving constructive discharge.
No employee should be subjected to an intolerable workplace or targeted by an employer based on their age. At Schaefer Halleen, our dedicated lawyers team fights age and other forms of discrimination. Please contact our Twin Cities-based attorneys and learn how we may be able to help.