Supreme Court limits protections against employer reprisal

In a split decision today, the Minnesota Supreme Court narrowed the protection against reprisal claims afforded Minnesota workers who are fired by an employer.

The high court threw out the case of Elen Bahr, a white supervisor in Capella University’s communications department, who claimed she was fired because she opposed what she thought was discriminatory treatment of white workers.

In her suit, Bahr says Capella gave special treatment to an African American employee who, she said, wasn’t performing well at her job. She contends the university had directed her to “go slow” on the issue because of fears the employee would file a discrimination complaint against Capella. Bahr said the special treatment discriminated against others in her department. Shortly thereafter, Capella fired Bahr.

A district court threw the case out because Capella’s actions toward the the African American employee — it refused to put her in a program to improve her performance, a program Bahr said was offered to white employees — were not prohibited under Minnesota’s Human Rights Act. But an Appeals Court reinstated the suit, saying Bahr only had to believe the actions violated the law, to assert a claim of reprisal against her.

But the Supreme Court rejected that decision

“We conclude that no reasonable person could believe that Capella’s treatment of (the African American employee) was forbidden by the MHRA because (she) was not subjected to anything that could remotely be considered an adverse employment action,” Justice G. Barry Anderson wrote.

In a dissent, however, Justice Alan Page said Bahr may have reasonably believed that Capella’s “race-based preferential treatment of (the African American woman) constituted reverse discrimination against Capella’s non-black employees who were subject to all of Capella’s performance and disciplinary standards.”

Page and Justice Paul Anderson argued that the Minnesota Human Rights Act requires only an allegation of discrimination to protect a person from a reprisal because of the allegation.

But the majority on the court said”not everything that makes an employee unhappy is an actionable adverse employment action.”

(Here’s the full decision)

  • John O.

    The legacy of Tim Pawlenty will continue to live on at the Minnesota Supreme Court long after he has left the Governor’s mansion. Unfortunately.

  • Mary S

    The MN courts really need to start seeing through these corporations and recognize that Bahr wouldn’t want to put herself through this or lose her job unless there was a real problem or issue. We need education and legal reform. It is disappointing that while the Supreme Court sought to view the case, they totally dropped the ball on this one. Capella is not an ethical player and has a reputation for the accusations…