Fired for seeking jobless aid, security guard loses Minn. Supreme Court fight

A divided Minnesota Supreme Court today rejected protection for a former security guard who says she was fired in retaliation for filing for unemployment benefits after her hours were cut.

In doing so, the court declined to expand an exception to Minnesota employment law, which holds an employer liable for firing an employee who refuses to violate the law.

Jane Dukowitz, of Cold Spring, Minn., insisted she had good performance reviews right up until the time her hours were cut at her seasonal job by Hannon Security Services and she indicated she’d have to file for unemployment to make ends meet.

“The employment at will rule — foundational in American employment law for well over a century — protects the freedom of the employer and employee to contract,” Justice David Stras wrote in today’s decision, which said there are other ways a fired employee can contest retaliation for filing for unemployment.

Under Minnesota’s employment-at-will rule, an employer can discharge a person for a good reason, for a bad reason, or for no reason at all.

In a dissent, Justice Wilhelmina Wright says few states limit protection from employer retaliation to cases where the employee is asked to break the law, saying that retaliation for filing for unemployment benefits violates public policy.

“Because an employee may qualify for unemployment benefits while still working a limited number of hours, it is possible for an employer to retaliate against a n employee who applies for unemployment benefits by terminating the employee altogether. In this case, it is undisputed that Dukowitz was eligible for unemployment benefits at the time of her termination,” Justice Wright wrote.

“Permitting employers to discharge employees who seek unemployment benefits deters eligible, economically vulnerable individuals — including part-time workers, seasonal workers, or workers who have their hours reduced — from seeking unemployment benefits to which they are statutorily entitled,” she said.

Here’s the full decision.