Minnesota Supreme Court Issues Landmark Disability Discrimination Decision

On February 27, 2019, the Minnesota Supreme Court issued a major decision in favor of employees. The case, Daniel v. Minneapolis, addressed whether an employee who is disabled as a result of a work injury can bring a claim under the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA). For decades, such employees were prohibited from filing MHRA claims because of a prior supreme court ruling in Karst v. FC Hayer Co., Inc. (issued in 1989). Under Karst, disabled employees were prohibited from bringing human rights claims because they were preempted by Minnesota’s Workers’ Compensation Act. Consequently, any employee who experienced disability discrimination resulting from a work injury was left without any recourse to remedy the discrimination.

This led to absurd results. For example, if an employee suffered a disabling injury outside of work, she would be protected from discrimination under the MHRA. But if that same employee became disabled at work, she would have no protection from discrimination. Her employer would be free to fire her because of her disability and nothing more. This was bad policy for Minnesotans and was out of step with the rest of the country, with nearly every state rejecting similar interpretations of their own state laws.

In Daniel, the Minnesota Supreme Court corrected that problem and overruled the Karst decision. Writing for a 5-2 majority, Justice Margaret Chutich wrote, “Unlike the workers’ compensation act, the human rights act is a civil rights law that protects employees from unlawful employment discrimination.” The Court recognized the fundamental difference between the Workers’ Compensation Act, which is designed to remedy work injuries, and the MHRA, which is designed to protect disabled employees from discrimination. Because of these differences, neither law preempts the other. Instead, workers have rights under both.

Teske, Katz, Kitzer & Rochel lawyers Phillip Kitzer and Brian Rochel wrote on behalf of the Minnesota Chapter of the National Employment Lawyers Association in a “friend of the court” or amicus brief, asking the Supreme Court to overrule the Karst decision. “This marks a great step forward for all employees in Minnesota and corrects a decades-long error in the law,” said Phillip Kitzer. “Employees should not be treated differently and denied equal protection simply because they become disabled as a result of a work injury. That is not consistent with Minnesota’s strong history of protecting and advancing human rights,” added Brian Rochel.

If you have any questions about Daniel v. Minneapolis, disability discrimination, workers’ compensation retaliation, or employment law generally, please contact Teske, Katz, Kitzer & Rochel today.

I received a severance agreement, should I contact an employment lawyer?

As lawyers representing employees, we are often asked when it is a good idea to have a lawyer review a severance agreement. The short answer is: almost always.

First, any severance agreement that releases legal claims (virtually all of them do) requires an employee to know whether they have any legal claims that they are giving up by signing the agreement. It is impossible to know the value of what you may be giving up without having a thorough evaluation of potential legal claims.

Second, most severance agreements are not clearly written and require employees to waive or limit rights that employees may not even understand. Frequently, severance agreements seek broad restrictions on the right to seek employment at other companies, to speak openly and truthfully, to pursue administrative claims, or to assist others who may seek legal action against a former employer, just to name a few examples. These terms limit the rights that employees otherwise freely enjoy.

Third, initial severance offers are frequently just that—an initial offer. Employers may be willing to negotiate the severance amount or offer other terms in addition to separation pay. The potential for negotiating terms of a severance agreement (including the total monetary payout) is well worth seeking sound legal advice.

The expertise of an experienced employment lawyer is valuable in understanding all of the terms in a separation agreement as well as in deciding how to respond to a severance offer. Nearly every severance agreement includes language that the employer encourages the employee to seek consult an attorney. That language exists for a reason. You can be assured that the company was advised by a lawyer; do not miss the opportunity and to seek sound legal advice of your own.

You must also act quickly, because nearly every severance offer has a time limit upon which an employer may withdraw the offer.

If you have received a severance agreement or have questions about your employment or separation from employment, contact Teske, Katz, Kitzer & Rochel today.

Phillip Kitzer Participates on #MeToo Panel at FBA National Conference

On September 14, 2018, TKKR Employment Attorney Phillip Kitzer spoke on a panel sponsored by the Labor & Employment Section of the FBA at the Federal Bar Association’s National Conference in New York City. The panel, titled “#MeToo: Implementation and Administration of an Effective Anti-Harassment Policy,” discussed various legal issues arising out of the #MeToo movement, including addressing complaints in the workplace, effective training of employees and management, responding to EEOC charges, and recent tax law changes involving settlements of claims involving sexual harassment and abuse. The panel was moderated by Donna Currault of Gordon, Arata, Montgomery, Barnett LLC in New Orleans, LA, and included the Hon. Lisa M. Smith, U.S. Magistrate Judge for the Southern District of New York, and Mary A. Smith, Principal at Jackson Lewis, P.C. 

Free Speech in the Workplace?

Many people mistakenly believe that an employee cannot be fired for exercising their rights to free speech. For most employees, that is simply not true.

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution generally protects citizens from government retaliation for speech. It provides that “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech.” Private employers, however, are not prohibited by the First Amendment from terminating the employment relationship based on speech. In fact, many employers do terminate employees for engaging in “free speech.” Because nearly every state in the country is an “at-will employment” state, employers are generally entitled to terminate the employment relationship “at will,” or for any reason they wish. While there are exceptions to the “at-will” doctrine (such as race discrimination or firing someone for certain types of whistleblowing), firing an employee for what they say outside of work is usually not illegal.

In the private sector, unions have historically provided the “rights” that many employees believe they have at work. When unions negotiate contracts on behalf of many employees, they usually negotiate that employers are limited in the reasons they can terminate an employee. Likewise, certain high-level employees are often provided employment contracts that restrict the reasons for terminating an employee. But because only around 6% of private-sector employees belong to unions, and very few employees have an employment contract, most employers can legally terminate an employee because of what they say outside of work.

Ask Juli Briskman. Ms. Briskman became famous for a photograph taken of her when she gave the President a one-finger salute as he drove past in his motorcade. Her employer, Akima LLC, terminated Ms. Briskman’s employment for violating the company’s social media policy. Ms. Brisman sued Akima by arguing that a public-policy exception should exist to the at-will employment doctrine. But the Virginia Court dismissed her case for failure to state a legal claim.

Similarly, a white nationalist was fired from his job as a welder and mechanic after appearing in the New York Times at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. The company, Limestone & Sones Inc. posted a statement on its Facebook page stating they “would like to take this time to assure our friends and customers that we do not condone the actions of people involved in this horrific display that has taken place in Charlottesville.”

This is not to say that employers can never be held liable for terminating an employee for “free speech.” Many states, including Minnesota, prohibit an employer from terminating an employee for reporting, in good faith, violations of the law to the police. While some employers may feel tempted to retaliate against an employee for speaking with the police about its own policies or practices, such retaliation would likely violate the law. Likewise, an employer who terminates an employee for protesting race discrimination may itself face a lawsuit for race discrimination.

If you have been fired for engaging in “free speech,” and would like to know more about your rights, contact an attorney at Teske Katz Kitzer & Rochel today.

Ideas for Negotiating a Job Offer

If you do not typically negotiate the terms of your job offer, you may want to consider doing so. There are many different aspects of a typical employment offer that you may be able to negotiate. If you do not, you may be selling yourself short.

Perhaps the biggest factor in negotiating an employment agreement is your salary or compensation for a job. During the initial interview, an employer will frequently ask what salary level you are seeking. This is the first misstep in most initial employment negotiations. You are not obligated to provide your prior salary history and doing so may hurt your negotiating position. At the same time, it is unwise to be rude or curt in denying to share salary information if you are trying to persuade an employer to hire you.

Here are some tips when facing this question:

  • Redirect: Ask what salary range the employer is offering (or what range a recruiter believes is realistic). Or say, “I am looking for roles in a range between $__ and $__.” Focus on what you are looking for, not what you earned in the past.
  • Ask for more information: Respond by saying that you need more information about the specific role or job you are seeking before you can comfortably answer what salary range you are seeking.
  • Directly address the question: You can politely say that you are not comfortable sharing that information or that it is private. In fact, sharing prior salary history can lead to direct or indirect discrimination. For instance, it well documented that women and minorities are generally paid less than men and non-minorities. Allowing companies to dictate pay based on previous salaries perpetuates these discriminatory norms. In some circumstances, seeking prior pay information may even violate the law. You should contact an employment attorney if you have questions about that.

At some point, if things move forward, you will be offered a position with a salary or a salary range. Of course, you will want to negotiate this term to get the best salary you can. Frequently, though, there is not much room beyond the initial salary offer unless there are unique circumstances (i.e. you have a competitive job offer, etc.).

Once you have been offered a job and settled on a salary, you can still negotiate several terms beyond salary. Many people overlook this potentially lucrative opportunity. Here are some terms to consider negotiating:

Sign-on bonus: these are more common than negotiating a salary increase, and are frequently agreed-to when job candidates push for them. This can make a significant financial difference when comparing competing job offers.

  • Vacation: negotiating one or even many additional vacation days per year is a very common term that employers are willing to give.
  • Stock options: Some companies offer stock options as part of an employment agreement. These can be very valuable depending on the financial health and future of the business.
  • Flexibility: working from home (even a few days a year or something like that), variable work hours, limited travel, etc.
  • Dues/fees: if you are obligated to maintain membership dues or association fees, negotiate your employer covering these. We have even seen employers pay for memberships at social or health clubs for the career networking value that the company receives. Similarly, you can negotiate paying conference attendance fees or travel costs. Be specific about these terms up front rather than waiting until after you are hired.
  • Tuition reimbursement: This is another common term for employees looking to advance their career—it can be a win-win for the employer and employee. But be very careful about provisions that require you to pay back any reimbursement amount if you leave the company.
  • Non-monetary items: Aside from terms that cost a company money, you can get creative about other elements of the job that help you advance your career trajectory. For instance, your job title or the number of employees that report to you may be items you can negotiate. This can make a significant difference in promotional opportunities down the road and can help you gain valuable experience.

You should also consider negotiating severance or separation terms as part of your initial job offer or employment agreement. We frequently have clients who quit, are laid off or are terminated and attempt to negotiate severance pay. In almost all cases, employers’ lawyers argue that those terms should have been negotiated at the outset of the employment relationship. They are right. As an employee, you are much better off having a contractual right to severance pay when you are let go than if you do not.

Many employers today require some form of non-compete agreement, non-solicitation agreement, or other restriction on your ability to work upon departing from the company. You can use that to negotiate some form of separation pay in exchange for agreeing to these restrictions. For instance, if an employer requires you to sign a one year non-compete, you can suggest that they include one year of severance pay if you are terminated under certain circumstances. This helps protect you in the event that you are suddenly fired and then bound by a restrictive covenant that limits you in finding a new job.

***The law on non-competes and other restrictive covenants is complicated and changes regularly. The same is true for law governing employment agreements. There are many factors involved in deciding whether to negotiate an employment agreement, and you should seek legal advice from an experienced employment lawyer before signing (or even negotiating) such an agreement. It is important to fully understand what you are agreeing to before you agree to anything.

Minnesota Supreme Court Affirms Broad Protection for Whistleblowers

Today, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled in favor of employees, holding that the Minnesota legislature intended to overrule caselaw that limited Minnesota’s Whistleblower Act (MWA) when it amended the law in 2013. The case, Freidlander v. Edwards Life Sciences, centered around the definition of “good faith.” The MWA protects employees from retaliation if they report illegal conduct in “good faith.” Prior to 2013, the statute provided no definition for the term “good faith.” Beginning in 2002, the Minnesota Supreme Court limited that definition in several cases. The effect of the court’s narrow definition was to limit protections for employees, leaving no legal recourse for many employees were fired for reporting unlawful conduct. These decisions undermined the purpose of the Minnesota Whistleblower Act by making it it much more difficult for employees to report unlawful activity without losing their jobs. Consequently, in 2013, the Minnesota Legislature took action, defining “good faith” as any report that is not knowingly false or in reckless disregard of the truth. By doing so, the Legislature restored the broad protections of the MWA.

Several companies, including Edwards Life Sciences, and the Chamber of Commerce, disagreed with the Legislature’s intent and argued that the judicially-created, narrow definition of “good faith” still applied, even though the legislature changed the law. In a case that affects virtually every employee in Minnesota, the Supreme Court rejected this argument, and held that the legislature intended to change the definition, stating that the employer’s reading would “render the ‘good faith’ definition section of the 2013 amendment superfluous, and run afoul of our presumption that the Legislature intends to change the law when it amends a statute.”

The decision was unanimous, with Chief Justice Gildea authoring the opinion. The decision solidifies the Legislature’s effort to ensure that employees are protected from being fired or retaliated against if they report violations of law, or suspected violations of law, to their employer or to third parties. Employees must make such reports in “good faith,” which means that they are not protected if they lie or make reports in reckless disregard of the truth.

The case was successfully argued by Adam Hansen of Apollo Law, and the plaintiff is represented by Halunen Law and Nichols Kaster. Phillip Kitzer, Douglas Micko and Brian Rochel of Teske Katz Kitzer & Rochel also participated on behalf of Minnesota NELA, who appeared as amicus curiae arguing in favor of the broader interpretation.

If you would like to learn more, or if you believe you have experienced retaliation at work, contact Teske Katz Kitzer & Rochel today.

Judge Rules in Favor of Employees in Background Check Class Action

Teske Katz Kitzer & Rochel, along with co-counsel Nichols Kaster, represents a group of employees and prospective employees who were provided illegal background check disclosures by iQor. The case, Shoots, et al. v. iQor, is filed in the District of Minnesota and alleges that iQor’s authorization and disclosure forms violated the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). In a ruling today by Judge Susan Richard Nelson, the Court denied iQor’s motion to dismiss the suit and allowed the class plaintiffs’ claims to move forward. The complete decision is available here

Brian Rochel, partner at Teske Katz Kitzer & Rochel, argued the case on behalf of the plaintiffs. Doug Micko, one of the lead attorneys in the suit, remarked, “Judge Nelson’s order is a win to employees and consumers nationwide. Her ruling reaffirms what the majority of courts have held, that including extra information in disclosure forms violates the FCRA and infringes on the rights of employees and prospective employees to know what they are giving up.” 

Background checks—also referred to as credit reports or consumer reports–have grown exponentially in recent years, especially in the employment context. Nearly half of all employers now require employees and job applicants to authorize background checks, and hundreds of new companies that provide background checks are popping up around the country. Meanwhile, many of these companies and employers do not follow the strict state and federal guidelines that govern background checks and consumer credit reports, including the FCRA. This has led to significant issues for millions of people across the US

Teske Katz Kitzer & Rochel is a fierce advocate for employees and consumers whose rights are violated during the background check process. The ruling in Shoots v. iQor is one more step in the process to even the playing field for employees in this growing area. 

If you believe your rights have been violated, or have questions about background checks, credit reports or consumer reports, contact us today.

Vildan Teske, Doug Micko and Marisa Katz Present a CLE Update on the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 Term

On October 12, 2015, Teske Katz Kitzer & Rochel partners Vildan Teske, Doug Micko and Marisa Katz presented a continuing legal education (CLE) seminar on the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 term.

The presentation included an overview of the major employment law-related cases decided in the last term and the implications of such decisions in everyday practice. The seminar also touched on the Court’s current term and key cases that will be decided in 2016 both in the employment and consumer class action areas. The presentation was made as part of Minnesota CLE’s Employment Law Webcast Series.

Marisa Katz & Doug Micko Present Supreme Court Update

On September 8, 2015, Teske Katz Kitzer & Rochelpartners Marisa Katz and Doug Micko co-presented a continuing legal education (CLE) seminar focused on important employment law cases from the United States Supreme Court’s 2015 Term. The presentation was made at the request of the Minnesota Chapter of the National Employment Lawyers Association (MN-NELA), a member-based professional organization made up of attorneys who represent workers with employment disputes.

To learn more about how the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decisions impact employment law and how that may impact you as an employee, or if you have any employment law questions, please do not hesitate to contact Teske Katz Kitzer & Rochel today.

Vildan Teske Co-Moderates FBA Panel on Diversity in Legal Practice

Vildan Teske co-moderated a continuing legal education (CLE) seminar today sponsored by the Minnesota Chapter of the Federal Bar Association entitled “Cultivating a Diverse Pipeline of New Attorneys in Uncertain Legal Times.”  The seminar was followed by a reception at the Radisson Blu in downtown Minneapolis.  The CLE kicked off with remarks by U.S. Magistrate Judge Tony N. Leung. The panel of speakers included Valerie Jensen, Executive Director of Twin Cities Diversity in Practice; Anthony Winer, Professor of Law at William Mitchell College of Law; Tracy M. Smith, Deputy General Counsel for the University of Minnesota, and; Dr. Luiza Dreasher, Assistant Dean and Director of the Office of Multicultural and International Inclusion at the William Mitchell College of Law.  The seminar explored the challenges, obstacles, and the successes in achieving a diverse pipeline of attorneys in Minnesota, as well as the effect of recent U.S. Supreme Court opinions on admission decisions in higher education.

Click here for Minnesota Lawyer’s coverage of the event.