Workplace Fairness Law in Minnesota – the Basics.
Here’s a quick primer on workplace fairness in Minnesota. Unfortunately, there’s no state or federal law mandating “fairness” at work. There’s no law saying that employers need to hire good bosses or kind employees, or that employers need to make good business decisions. So the bad news is that your employer doesn’t have to be “fair” to you.
But the good news is that there are Minnesota and federal laws that protect employees. Specifically, Minnesota law prohibits discrimination in the workplace, including sexual harassment and hostile work environment. As a Minnesota employee, you’re also protected from retaliation for whistle-blowing on activity that you believe is illegal or fraudulent. Minnesota employment law also guarantees employees minimum wage and overtime pay.
Wrongful Termination in Minnesota
Minnesota is an “at-will”employment state. That means that your employer can fire you for any reason or no reason at all – even a stupid, incorrect, unfair, or unethical reason – provided that it’s not an illegal reason.
Employers can – and often do – make mistakes or bad business decisions when they terminate employees. Even if an employer’s actions are unfair, unethical, or bad business, the employer hasn’t broken the law unless they make an employment decision such as termination for an illegal reason. Sometimes, employment lawyers refer to these claims as “wrongful termination” claims. We mainly use “wrongful termination” as shorthand for clients – most of the illegal reasons for termination that form the basis for a lawsuit are discrimination, retaliation, or whistleblowing.
There are several illegal reasons for termination:
The first illegal reason for termination is discrimination on the basis of race, age, sex, disability, or sexual orientation. Both Minnesota state law (through the Minnesota Human Rights Act) and federal law (through Title VII, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act) prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of inherent and arbitrary criteria like race, age, gender, disability, or sexual orientation.
The second unlawful and wrongful reason for termination is retaliation or reprisal by an employer against an employee for making a complaint or report of discrimination. The Minnesota Human Rights Act and Title VII both prevent employers from retaliating against employees for making a report of unlawful discrimination – either against themselves or other employees.
The third illegal reason for termination is retaliation for whistleblowing. Both federal law and state law protect whistleblower employees from suffering retaliation at their jobs for reporting conduct that they believe to be unlawful.
The federal government allows certain employees up to 90 days in a calendar year for medical leave for themselves or to care for family members through the Family and Medical Leave Act. An illegal reason for termination is if an employer retaliates against an employee for exercising his or her FMLA rights.
Minnesota protects its injured employees by preventing employers from retaliating against employees who get injured on the job and seek workers compensation benefits. Workers compensation retaliation is illegal. It is illegal for employers to terminate employees just because the employee was injured and sought workers compensation.
Hostile Work Environment Claims in Minneapolis
Even if you haven’t been terminated, you may still have an employment claim against your employer for hostile work environment. This claim is frequently misunderstood, though. It’s not enough to bring a lawsuit to state that your boss or employer is mean to you, doesn’t treat you right, or doesn’t do things the way you think they should be done. Rather, in order to have a legal claim, the hostile work environment must be based on discrimination.
For example, sexual harassment is a common type of hostile work environment claim. Basically, an employee alleges that her supervisors have made her work environment hostile by sexual comments, innuendo, propositions, or even grabbing and assault. Race, age, disability, and sexual orientation discrimination can all form the basis for a hostile work environment claim, but employment lawyers must have the ability to prove that the harassment at work was on account of the employees, race, gender, sex, age, disability, or sexual orientation. For better or worse, there is no law mandating kindness by employers to employees or among peers. Hostile work environment claims must be based on some form of unlawful discrimination.
Minnesota Minimum Wage, Overtime, and Unlawful Deductions Claims
Both Minnesota and the United States mandate that employers pay employees minimum wage and pay time and a half for overtime work. Minnesota also prohibits unlawful deductions from employees’ paychecks by employers. The Fair Labor Standards Act and Minnesota Fair Labor Standards Act prohibit retaliation by employers against employees for making reports of unlawful wage and hour practices, such as failing to properly pay minimum wage or time and a half for overtime.
The mandatory minimum wage is different under state and federal law. The state mandated minimum wage is currently $7.75 per hour and the federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. That means that Minnesota businesses must pay Minnesota employees the higher of the two – the state minimum wage of $7.75 per hour. As part of this, all work done by employees for employers must be “on the clock.” If companies require employees to do work “off the clock” – before, during, or after their shifts – then the employees likely have a minimum wage claim against the employer.
Also, under federal law, all hours worked per week over 40 by an employee are considered overtime and must be paid at time and a half. Under Minnesota state law, all hours worked over 48 by an employee are considered overtime and must be paid at time and a half. Minnesota companies must abide by both sets of laws: as a practical matter, that means that Minnesota employers must pay employees time and a half for all hours worked in a week over 40. If a company fails to do this, the employee likely has an overtime claim against the employer.
Minnesota and federal plaintiff employment lawyers frequently bring these claims – for minimum wage, overtime, or unlawful deductions – as collective actions or class actions on behalf of all employees affected by the wrongful conduct. Oftentimes, employers short many employees on their paychecks, require off the clock work from many employees, or don’t properly pay overtime or minimum wage to entire groups of employees. Employment lawyers who represent employees then can bring claims on behalf of the entire group of employees to get compensation for all.
Proving Minnesota Discrimination, Wrongful Termination, Hostile Work Environment, or Wage and Hour Claims in Minnesota
Very rarely will an employer admit that it terminated an employee for an illegal, discriminatory reason. Usually, even if the employer actually discriminated on the basis of age, race, disability, gender, or sexual orientation, the employer will make up and offer a different, non-discriminatory reason for termination. For example, the employer might claim that it terminated the employee based on poor performance. In order to prevail on a wrongful termination or discrimination claim, you must prove that the reason offered by the employer is a pretextual reason that is just being said so that the employer can avoid having to say the actual, illegal reason for termination.
There are a few ways that we prove pretext on behalf of employees. First, we can demonstrate that the reason given by the employer is just factually wrong. So, for example, if the employer claims that it terminated an employee for poor performance, but actually gave the employee high performance reviews for a number of years and has no written records of any discipline or counseling of the employee, then we’ve created a fact question for a jury regarding whether the reason given by the employer is the real reason for termination, or just a pretextual reason designed to mask unlawful discrimination.
Second, we can prove that the reason given by the employer isn’t the real reason for termination because it wasn’t equally applied to similarly situated employees. So, if the employer claims that it terminated someone for poor performance, but the employee’s peers actually had equal or worse performance reviews than the terminated employee – or documented performance problems that that employee didn’t have – than we’ve created a fact issue regarding whether the employer’s stated reason for termination is the actual reason, or just a pretextual reason designed to mask unlawful discrimination.
Minneapolis Hostile Work Environment Claims
We prove these claims by basically documenting the maltreatment that employees have received. A couple things are very important here. First, we need to show that the hostile work environment was on account of your age, race, sex, disability, or sexual orientation. So employees can testify or offer other evidence about comments, drawings, emails, or other events that demonstrate that the maltreatment was motivated by discrimination.
Second, the employee needs to show that he or she took steps to notify management of the problem, but management took no action. For example, if an employee believes that her coworkers are sexually harassing her by making sexual comments or grabbing her or whatever, she needs to notify a supervisor as soon as possible. The employer is not liable for the acts of rank and file employees. So just because her coworkers are sexually harassing her, the employer is not automatically liable. The employer is liable, though, if it knows about the sexual harassment and doesn’t take corrective action to protect the employee. So if the employee notified a supervisor about the sexual harassment, and the supervisor did nothing, and the harassment continued, then the employee has a strong case for hostile work environment sexual harassment against the employer.
Minimum Wage, Overtime, and Unlawful Deductions Claims in Minneapolis and St. Paul.
In some ways, these claims are easier to prove than discrimination claims because we don’t need to prove an employer’s intent – we don’t need to show what was going on inside an employer’s head. The only thing we need to prove is that an employee worked a certain number of hours that he or she wasn’t properly paid for, or that unlawful deductions were taken from their checks.
The first thing that we’ll review are your paychecks and your timesheets, to see if they match. Sometimes, they may match but an employer has required you to work off the clock, so the off the clock time isn’t documented. Do your best to keep your own notes or log of the time that you work off the clock, so that we can recreate those hours when seeking damages.
However, ultimately, an employee’s testimony alone is sufficient evidence regarding the amount of hours worked off the clock if an employer has failed to keep accurate records of time worked.
I am a Minnesota Employment Lawyer Who Focuses on Employment, Wrongful Termination, Harassment, Discrimination, Retaliation, and Wage and Hour Cases
I represent employees across Minnesota in wrongful termination, discrimination, retaliation, sexual harassment, FMLA, minimum wage and overtime, disability, workers compensation retaliation, and hostile work environment cases. I've been honored to take on – and beat – some of the largest employers in the country that broke the law.
You probably have many questions right now, like:
I’ve been out of work for months now and am having trouble finding a job. Who will cover my lost wages?
I’ve suffered emotional distress as a result of my employer’s harassment and wrongful termination. Can I get the medical care and compensation that I need?
My employer wants me to sign a severance agreement that includes a release of all of employment claims. Should I sign it?
These are just some of the questions that workers and employees have after suffering a wrongful termination by their employer. As an employment lawyer, I can help you answer these questions and will aggressively advocate and litigate on your behalf, so that you can start the process of getting your life back to normal.
You May Be Entitled to Lost Wages, Emotional Distress Compensation, and Punitive Damages
For wrongful termination and discrimination claims, you may be entitled to back pay and front pay damages, emotional distress compensation, treble damages under the Minnesota Human Rights Act, punitive damages under both the Minnesota Human Rights Act and Title VII, and your attorney fees and costs. You may even be entitled to get your job back.
For hostile work environment claims, state and federal law allow you to recover any lost wages, emotional distress damages, treble damages (that means three times the amount of actual damages), punitive damages under both the Minnesota Human Rights Act and Title VII, and your attorney fees and hard costs.
For workers compensation retaliation actions, Minnesota allows plaintiffs to recover back and front pay damages, punitive damages, and attorney fees and hard costs.
In minimum wage, overtime, and unlawful deductions actions brought under the Minnesota Fair Labor Standards Act or Fair Labor Standards Act, employees may recover up to 3 years worth of unpaid wages or overtime pay, plus an equal amount as liquidated damages, in addition to attorney fees and costs.
Under the Family Medical Leave Act, plaintiff employees may recover lostback pay and front pay, plus an email amount as liquidated damages, in addition to your attorney fees and costs.
Contact A Minnesota Workplace Fairness Lawyer.
You must act quickly when it comes to employment claims. If you wait, there may be strict statutes of limitation that will bar you from filing any claim at all against your employer. Reach out today to discuss your case.
Joshua Newville is a Minnesota employment lawyer, civil rights attorney, and mediator. Josh litigates and advises on such matters as wrongful termination, whistleblowers, discrimination, police misconduct, and more. He offers paid legal consultations and free online case reviews regarding employment law and civil rights.