Taylor v. LSI Corporation of America: A Significant Change in Marital Status Discrimination under the Minnesota Human Rights Act
April 24, 2012
by Susan E. Tegt
A recent decision by the Minnesota Supreme Court heightens the exposure faced by employers for marital status discrimination under the Minnesota Human Rights Act (“MHRA”). Under the recent decision in Taylor v. LSI Corporation of America, an employer may now face liability for discrimination if the employee can prove he or she was discriminated against on the basis of the beliefs, situation, or actions of the employee’s spouse or former spouse. 796 N.W.2d 153, 155 (Minn. 2011). This reverses previous law holding a claim for marital status discrimination under the MHRA existed only where the employee alleged a direct attack on the institution of marriage itself.
Interestingly, the holding of Taylor is not new law in Minnesota and marks the recognition by the Minnesota Supreme Court of an amendment to the MHRA made over twenty years ago. By way of background, when the MHRA was promulgated in 1973, “marital status” was identified as protected class. The term “marital status,” however, was not defined. Thus, the courts were left to craft their own definition. The result was a series of cases interpreting “marital status” to include only one’s identity as related to the institution of marriage. Thus, an employee could state a claim under the MHRA only if their identity as married, single, separated, or divorced was the basis for the discrimination.
In response to the courts’ limited definition of “marital status,” the Minnesota Legislature amended the MHRA in 1988. According to the amended statute, marital status now means “whether a person is single, married, remarried, divorced, separated, or a surviving spouse and, in employment cases, includes protection against discrimination on the basis of identity, situation, actions, or beliefs of a spouse or former spouse.” Minn. Stat. § 363A.03, subd. 24. This liberal definition of “marital status,” not adopted by any other state, was ignored by Minnesota courts for over twenty years.
Taylor v. LSI Corporation of America, marks the Minnesota Supreme Court’s eventual acceptance of the amended MHRA. In Taylor, LeAnn Taylor was terminated shortly after her husband, the former president of LSI, was terminated. According to LeAnn Taylor, the employer stated it would “be uncomfortable or awkward” for Ms. Taylor to remain employed after her husband’s termination and because the employer anticipated the Taylors would relocate after the husband’s termination. Ms. Taylor filed a claim for marital status discrimination under the MHRA. Ms. Taylor conceded that her termination was not based upon a direct attack on the institution of marriage and the trial court dismissed her case pursuant to case law issued prior to the amendment of the MHRA.
The Court of Appeals and the Minnesota Supreme Court disagreed with the trial court and found the language of the amended MHRA to be unambiguous. The Minnesota Supreme Court indicated that the plain language of the MHRA explicitly prohibits the discharge of an employee because of the “identity, situation, actions or beliefs of a spouse or former spouse.” Thus, employees no longer need to allege a direct attack on the institution of marriage.
Taylor is likely to have significant impact on employers. Minnesota employers may find themselves subject to a claim for marital status discrimination based upon actions that were once permissible. Now, in addition to a potential claim from an employee alleging an adverse employment action was taken on the basis of his or her identity as “married,” “divorced,” or “single,” an employer may face a claim if an adverse employment action is taken against an employee whose spouse or former spouse has acted in a manner not tolerated by the employer, or has a belief not consistent with that of the employer. Interestingly, while an at-will employee may be terminated for any non-discriminatory reason, including an employer’s mere dislike of that employee, that same employee may not be terminated because of the employer’s dislike of the employee’s spouse or former spouse.
Employers with operations in Minnesota need to recognize the broad range of protection afforded by the amended MHRA, and now Taylor. Less than half the states in the nation provide for protections against “marital status” discrimination and no others have adopted the broad language of the MHRA. Thus, employers with national operations may be subject to liability in Minnesota for actions that are permissible in other states. Employers with a Minnesota presence should be proactive in the wake of Taylor by educating managers and employees about marital status discrimination, and updating job descriptions, job qualifications, and employment policies. Employers seeking to protect confidential information are strongly advised to revisit anti-nepotism policies, particularly in situations where an employee or potential employee may reside with an employee of a competitor.
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