BAHR v. CAPELLA UNIVERSITY No. A08-1367.
788 N.W.2d 76 (2010)
Elen BAHR, Respondent, v. CAPELLA UNIVERSITY, Appellant.
Supreme Court of Minnesota.
September 9, 2010.
Joni M. Thome, Frances E. Baillon, Halunen & Associates, Minneapolis, MN, for respondent.
Thomas A. Harder, Foley & Mansfield, P.L.L.P., Minneapolis, MN, for appellant.
Lori Swanson, Attorney General, Angela Behrens, Assistant Attorney General, St. Paul, MN, for amicus curiae Commissioner of Minnesota Department of Human Rights.
ANDERSON, G. BARRY, Justice.
This case arises from appellant Capella University's employment termination of respondent Elen Bahr. Bahr brought an action in district court claiming that her employment termination was in retaliation for opposing discriminatory practices and that such retaliation violated the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA), Minn.Stat. §§ 363A.01-.41 (2008). Capella moved to dismiss Bahr's suit for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, Minn. R. Civ. P. 12.02(e). Capella argued that Bahr failed to establish that Capella's conduct was forbidden by the MHRA, and the district court granted Capella's motion. The court of appeals reversed, holding that Bahr need only allege facts showing a good-faith, reasonable belief that the conduct opposed was discriminatory, and that Bahr's complaint set forth a legally sufficient claim. Bahr v. Capella Univ.,
Bahr, a white woman, began working in Capella's communications department in February 2006, and assumed management of L.A., an African-American woman, in June 2006.
In January 2007 Bahr asked Capella's Human Resources Department for assistance in improving L.A.'s performance. After Bahr discussed L.A.'s work performance with Human Resources, Bahr met with L.A. in February 2007 to discuss performance issues, and Bahr noted several specific areas of concern. After the meeting, Bahr told Human Resources that L.A.'s performance was adversely affecting the communications team. On March 6, 2007, Bahr again met with L.A., established time and work management processes for L.A., and shifted some of L.A.'s duties to another employee. The two also set up weekly meetings to review L.A.'s progress. On March 7, 2007, Bahr met with her supervisor, Brad Frank, as well as Seth Lockner and Nichole Scott, two Human Resources employees, and reported that Bahr believed L.A. should be placed on a performance improvement plan (PIP). Lockner "demanded" that Bahr "move slowly with [L.A.]" and "insisted that [Bahr] could NOT move forward with any formal PIP." Bahr alleges that Capella's resistance was "highly unusual" because she had previously placed two other employees on a PIP.
During March and April 2007 Bahr continued to work with L.A. and to report to Scott the negative effect L.A.'s performance was having on Bahr's department. In response, Scott told Bahr to "move more slowly on the matter [with L.A.] than she had ever moved on a performance issue." Scott also told Bahr that L.A. "ha[d] a history" in the organization that was "racially based" and warned that action could result in a discrimination lawsuit
During this time, Bahr completed annual performance evaluations, meeting with all of her team members except L.A. Scott instructed Bahr to send L.A.'s review to Scott and the legal department before sharing it with L.A. When L.A. rated poorly, Scott told Bahr to "minimize the performance issues raised" and to "do the right thing" and provide "balance" to L.A.'s review. Scott added that she and Lockner would review the evaluation and have the legal department review it. Human Resources did not evaluate a performance review of any other employees.
On April 11, 2007, Bahr met with L.A. to discuss the performance review. After the meeting, Bahr told Scott that she wanted to place L.A. on a PIP. Bahr also told Scott that the university's treatment was "unfair and discriminatory to [L.A.] and to other employees" because no other employee was receiving the same treatment. On April 16, 2007, Bahr restated to Scott and Frank that she believed Capella's conduct discriminated against L.A. and other employees.
On April 17, 2007, Frank told Bahr that employees Bahr managed complained about Bahr to Human Resources. Frank did not believe the complaints and complimented Bahr on her performance. Bahr had requested a 360-review
Bahr told Frank on April 19 that she could no longer participate in the treatment of L.A. that Bahr perceived as discriminatory. On June 12, 2007, Frank asked Bahr how L.A. was performing. Bahr responded that L.A. was not doing her job. Bahr reminded Frank that her "hands were tied by the directives of HR" and that Bahr was "unwilling to engage in discriminatory treatment."
That same day, Bahr met with an outside consultant to discuss the 360-review results. The results showed high rankings from Bahr's director and peers but lower scores from staff. Bahr also met with another outside consultant to discuss how to improve her work team's dynamic. Bahr alleges managers in similar situations were given opportunities to work on team dynamic issues.
On June 19, 2007, Bahr told Frank that she had taken steps to improve her department's dynamics. Frank told Bahr that he did not think Bahr could "turn the situation around to suit him" and listed various options for terminating Bahr's employment. Bahr claims she had no reason to believe her employment was in jeopardy. On June 20, 2007, Bahr told Frank she would not resign. Frank terminated Bahr's employment and told Bahr to go home.
Bahr brought an action in district court, alleging that Capella engaged in reprisal under the MHRA by terminating Bahr's employment for refusing to participate in employment practices forbidden under the MHRA and for good-faith reports of discriminatory treatment. Capella brought a motion to dismiss under Minn. R. Civ. P. 12.02(e) for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. The district
The court of appeals concluded that Bahr only had to plead a good-faith, reasonable belief that Capella's actions, which Bahr opposed, were violations of the MHRA. Id. at 436. Applying this standard, the court of appeals noted that on four occasions, Bahr complained to Human Resources that Bahr believed that Capella's refusal to implement a PIP for L.A. to help her improve her job performance was discriminatory. Id. at 437. In addition, Capella's Human Resources Department had previously allowed Bahr to initiate PIPs with other employees, and Human Resources had commented that L.A. had a "racially-based history" with Capella, and Capella expressed concern about L.A. initiating a race discrimination lawsuit if Capella placed L.A. on a PIP. See id. The court of appeals concluded that Bahr's "complaint sets forth objectively reasonable grounds upon which to base [Bahr's] subjective belief that [Capella] was treating L.A. differently on the basis of race in violation of the MHRA." Id.
Because this case comes to us on appeal from the district court's decision to dismiss Bahr's complaint pursuant to Minn. R. Civ. P. 12.02(e) for failure to state a claim on which relief can be granted, we review the legal sufficiency of the claim de novo. Hebert v. City of Fifty Lakes,
We have said that "a pleading will be dismissed only if it appears to a certainty that no facts, which could be introduced consistent with the pleading, exist which would support granting the relief demanded." N. States Power Co. v. Franklin,
The MHRA reprisal provision states:
Minn.Stat. § 363A.15 (emphasis added). Bahr alleges that Capella engaged in reprisal under the MHRA in the form of retaliation.
Under the MHRA, to establish a prima facie case for a reprisal claim, a plaintiff, such as Bahr, must establish the following elements: "(1) statutorily-protected conduct by the employee; (2) adverse employment action by the employer; and (3) a causal connection between the two." Hoover v. Norwest Private Mortgage Banking,
Capella argues that the plain meaning of the phrase "practice forbidden under this chapter" in Minn.Stat. § 363A.15 requires that the practice opposed must be actually forbidden under the MHRA. In contrast, Bahr argues that she need not establish and plead opposition to practices that are actually unlawful under the MHRA. Instead, Bahr contends that she must only plead a good-faith, reasonable belief that Capella engaged in practices forbidden by the MHRA and that Bahr opposed those practices. In short, Bahr invites us to read a good-faith, reasonable-belief standard into Minn.Stat. § 363A.15. Bahr argues, in part, that federal courts that have analyzed the retaliation provision in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act
When analyzing the complaint to determine whether Bahr had a good-faith, reasonable belief that the practices she was opposing were discriminatory, we note that there is both a subjective and objective element to a good-faith, reasonable-belief standard. Capella is not contesting that Bahr's opposition was in good faith; this dispute does not concern the subjective element. Instead, the only issue is whether Bahr's belief was reasonable that what she was opposing was discriminatory and prohibited by the MHRA. Accordingly, the issue here concerns the objective component—was Bahr's opposition based on a legal theory and facts that are plausible? Bahr cannot merely claim a reasonable belief that the practices she opposed were forbidden by the MHRA and thereby avoid scrutiny of her claim. See Barnes v. Benham Group, Inc.,
The court of appeals held that the complaint contained objectively reasonable grounds for Bahr to believe that Capella "was treating L.A. differently on the basis of race in violation of the MHRA." Bahr, 765 N.W.2d at 437. But treating an employee differently is not the threshold question; the threshold question is whether it is reasonable to believe that Capella's treatment of L.A. was forbidden by the MHRA. Under a good-faith, reasonable-belief standard, Capella's actions need not have been actual violations of the MHRA in order for Bahr's reprisal claim to survive the Rule 12 motion to dismiss. But Bahr must plead sufficient facts to show that it was objectively reasonable for her to believe that Capella's actions were forbidden by the MHRA.
The MHRA specifies that it is an unfair employment practice for an employer, because of race, to "discriminate against a person with respect to hiring, tenure, compensation, terms, upgrading, conditions, facilities, or privileges of employment." Minn.Stat. § 363A.08, subd. 2(3). The definition of "discriminate" in
Although no Minnesota decision has directly addressed the issue raised in this dispute, we have said that "[i]n construing the MHRA, we apply law developed in federal cases arising under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act." Fletcher v. St. Paul Pioneer Press,
The U.S. Supreme Court in Clark County School District v. Breeden assumed without deciding that a good-faith, reasonable-belief standard applied when analyzing a sexual discrimination claim under Title VII.
Without adopting one of these tests, however described, it is fair to say that the reasonableness of a party's belief must be connected to the substantive law.
We conclude that no reasonable person could believe that Capella's treatment of L.A. was forbidden by the MHRA because L.A. was not subjected to anything that could remotely be considered an adverse employment action. Capella instructed Bahr not to move forward with a formal PIP for L.A. and to minimize performance issues in L.A.'s annual review. At the same time, however, L.A. was well aware of her performance issues, and had been receiving informal coaching from Bahr beginning in September 2006. There is nothing that suggests a change, let alone a material change, to L.A.'s (or other employees') "hiring, tenure, compensation, terms, upgrading, conditions, facilities, or privileges of employment" based on this conduct. Minn.Stat. § 363A.08, subd. 2(3).
Because we conclude that no reasonable person could believe that the practices
Dissenting, PAGE, and ANDERSON, PAUL H., JJ. Dissenting, MEYER, and ANDERSON, PAUL H., JJ.
PAGE, Justice (dissenting).
The Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA) prohibits an employer from discriminating against a person on the basis of race with respect to terms, conditions, or privileges of employment. Minn.Stat. § 363A.08, subd. 2(3) (2008). The MHRA also prohibits an employer from engaging in any reprisal against any person because that person opposed a practice forbidden under the MHRA. Minn.Stat. § 363A.15(1) (2008). The court holds that "Capella's decision not to place L.A. on a PIP cannot reasonably be believed to constitute an adverse employment action against L.A. or other employees." While I agree that not placing L.A. on a PIP cannot reasonably be believed to constitute an adverse employment action against L.A., I would hold that Bahr has alleged a viable reprisal claim based on her claim that she opposed Capella's discrimination against employees other than L.A.
Bahr complains that Capella asked her to depart from standard performance improvement methods with L.A., which was not done with any other employees. Specifically, Bahr was instructed to "move slowly" in the review process to "minimize the performance issues raised" in the review and to allow the legal department to review L.A.'s performance review before showing it to L.A. All of these actions benefited L.A. Generally, to prevail on an employment discrimination claim, the employer must have taken some adverse employment action against the employee. Goins v. West Group,
ANDERSON, PAUL H., Justice (dissenting).
I join in the dissent of Justice Page.
MEYER, Justice (dissenting).
I respectfully dissent. I would conclude that Bahr's complaint satisfies the plain language of the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA) because it alleges that Bahr opposed an employment practice forbidden under the MHRA. I would further conclude that Bahr's complaint is sufficiently pled because it alleges that Bahr objected to an employment practice that she reasonably and in good faith believed was forbidden under the MHRA. Because Bahr's complaint is sufficient to withstand a motion to dismiss on the pleadings, I would affirm.
In her complaint, Bahr alleged the following. Bahr managed L.A., an African-American woman who was transferred to Bahr's department after L.A.'s position in
On several occasions Bahr conveyed concerns regarding L.A.'s below standard performance to Capella's Human Resources Department and to her supervisor. In January 2007, Bahr asked Nichole Scott, a Human Resources representative, for guidance in improving L.A.'s performance. On March 7, 2007, Bahr told her supervisor, Scott, and Seth Lockner (another Human Resources representative), that L.A.'s performance warranted placement on a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP). Lockner told Bahr to "move slowly with [L.A.]" and not to move forward with the PIP. Such resistance to a PIP was highly unusual.
On March 27, 2007, after other employees "expressed their frustrations" with L.A.'s work performance, Bahr again voiced her concerns to Human Resources. Scott told Bahr "to move more slowly ... [with L.A.] than she had ever moved on a performance issue" because L.A. had a racially-based employment history with the university, and Capella wanted to avoid action that could result in the filing of a discrimination lawsuit by L.A. Scott also told Bahr that L.A.'s situation was "known and monitored by the highest levels in the organization, including [the president and CEO]." Scott further directed that Bahr delay L.A.'s annual performance review to permit the legal department to examine the review before it was given to L.A.
Bahr completed the performance review and did not give it to L.A. but rather gave the review to Scott. Because L.A.'s review fell below the minimum standards, Scott instructed Bahr to "minimize the performance issues raised," "do the right thing," and provide "balance" to L.A.'s review. Scott told Bahr to continue delaying L.A.'s review, so that the Human Resources Department could "take a fine tooth comb through it" and "vet it through legal." It is alleged that Human Resources did not examine the performance reviews of any other employee.
Bahr told her supervisor and Human Resources on several occasions that Capella's handling of L.A.'s situation was discriminatory to both L.A. and L.A.'s coworkers. When Bahr suggested on April 11, 2007, that L.A. be placed on a formal plan for improvement, she noted that Capella's treatment of L.A. was "unfair and discriminatory to [L.A.] and to other employees." Five days later, when Bahr was planning to meet with L.A. to discuss performance issues, Bahr stated to Human Resources and her supervisor that "the treatment of [L.A.] was discriminatory and unfair to [L.A.] AND to other people in the department." On April 19, 2007, Bahr told her supervisor that "she could no longer actively participate in the discriminatory treatment." On June 12, 2007, Bahr's supervisor asked her how L.A. was performing. Bahr responded that L.A. was not doing her job, that Bahr's hands were tied by Human Resources directives, and that she "was unwilling to engage in discriminatory treatment."
Bahr alleged that Capella retaliated against her by firing her because she opposed its discriminatory conduct. Bahr had previously been promoted. In April 2007, when Bahr met with her supervisor regarding the complaints relating to managing L.A., he praised Bahr's performance but stated that there was a "general belief" that Bahr was "intimidating." While Bahr's earlier request for a 360-review of her department had been denied, Capella ordered a 360-review after Bahr complained
Bahr's complaint specifically alleges Capella engaged in unlawful employment practices that violated the MHRA and that Capella engaged in retaliatory conduct against Bahr due to her "good faith reports of discriminatory treatment and refusal to participate in discriminatory employment practices." To establish a retaliation claim, a plaintiff must establish the following elements: (1) statutorily protected conduct; (2) adverse action (against plaintiff); and (3) a causal connection between the two. Hoover v. Norwest Private Mortgage Banking,
Two possible standards govern whether a plaintiff has alleged statutorily protected conduct under the MHRA: the actual-violation standard or the good-faith, reasonable-belief standard.
In construing the MHRA, our goal is to ascertain and effectuate the intention of the legislature. See Minn.Stat. § 645.16 (2008). When possible, we construe the MHRA to give effect to all its provisions. See id.; see also City of W. St. Paul v. Krengel,
The MHRA reprisal provision states:
Minn.Stat. § 363A.15 (2008) (emphasis added). The MHRA public policy provision states that it is, in part, the public policy of Minnesota to secure for all persons freedom from employment discrimination due to race. See Minn.Stat. § 363A.02, subd. 1(a)(1) (2008). It further provides that it is state policy to "protect all persons from wholly unfounded charges of discrimination." Minn.Stat. § 363A.02, subd. 1(b) (2008) (emphasis added).
Bahr alleges facts that are sufficient to establish an actual violation of Minn.Stat. § 363A.15, the reprisal provision. First, the conduct she alleges is discriminatory. The MHRA defines "discriminate" to include segregate or separate. Minn.Stat. § 363A.03, subd. 13 (2008). In other words, discriminatory conduct is conduct that segregates or separates on the basis of race. Capella separated L.A. from other employees by refusing to offer L.A. assistance in improving her job performance that it offered to other employees. Bahr was not instructed to "move slowly" or depart from standard performance improvement methods with any other employee. Capella also separated L.A. in the performance review process because L.A. was the only employee whose performance review was evaluated by Human Resources and the legal department. Thus, under the definition of discrimination in the MHRA, Capella's conduct was discriminatory.
Furthermore, Capella retaliated against Bahr for her opposition to its handling of L.A.'s situation. Capella did not order review of Bahr or criticize her performance until after she expressed her objection to Capella's discriminatory treatment of L.A. and L.A.'s coworkers. According to Bahr's complaint, Capella abandoned procedures afforded other managers to improve their performance before termination when it terminated Bahr. Finally, Bahr's supervisor directly told Bahr that she was fired because she could not "turn the situation [regarding L.A.] around" to satisfy him. Drawing favorable inferences for Bahr and accepting the allegations in her complaint as true, Capella's conduct constitutes reprisal under the MHRA.
The plain language of section 363A.15 does not require individuals opposing discrimination to establish that discrimination actually occurred. The MHRA requires only an allegation of discrimination to protect a person from reprisal. The alleged discrimination must be based on opposition to a practice forbidden by the MHRA, but alleged discrimination is distinct from actual discrimination.
While a person opposing a practice believed to be discriminatory need not establish actual discrimination, the MHRA also reflects that the Act's reprisal provision does not protect frivolous or meritless allegations
Courts interpreting Title VII's substantially similar retaliation provision have not required proof of actual discrimination. Title VII's retaliation provision is in substance similar to the MHRA reprisal provision:
42 U.S.C. § 2000e-3(a) (2006). Every federal circuit court that handles Title VII claims has adopted the good-faith, reasonable-belief standard.
The good-faith, reasonable-belief standard comports with the public policy objectives codified in the MHRA. See Minn.Stat. § 363A.02 (2008). As noted, the MHRA is intended to free persons from employment discrimination. Id., subd. 1(a)(1). Requiring a plaintiff to satisfy an actual-violation standard would likely chill reprisal claims and undermine the MHRA's effectiveness in combating discrimination. See, e.g., Hearth v. Metro. Transit Comm'n,
Bahr's complaint satisfies the good-faith, reasonable-belief standard. To allege discrimination in good faith, an employee must have an "honestly held" belief that the employer was engaged in discriminatory practices. Monteiro v. Poole Silver Co.,
To hold a reasonable belief, an employee must allege behavior that a reasonable person could have believed constituted unlawful discrimination. Little v. United Techs. Carrier Transicold Div.,
Because Bahr's complaint satisfies both the good-faith, reasonable-belief standard and the actual-violation standard, I would affirm the court of appeals.
ANDERSON, PAUL H., Justice (dissenting).
I join in the dissent of Justice Meyer.
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