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Sex Discrimination in Employment in Minnesota

Minnesota is an “at-will” employment state. That means that your employer can fire you for any reason or no reason at all – even a stupid, incorrect, unfair, or unethical reason – provided that it’s not an illegal reason.

But your employer can’t make any decisions about your employment based on your sex, gender, or pregnancy status – that’s sex discrimination and prohibited by both state and federal law.

We see gender discrimination in a few different forms.  The most common is pay discrimination – for some reason, some employers still don’t pay women equal pay for equal work.  Gender discrimination in pay is illegal under the Minnesota Human Rights Act, the federal Civil Rights Act, and the federal Equal Pay Act.

The second major form of sex discrimination in employment is pregnancy discrimination.  Some employers will try to terminate female employees when they become pregnant or put them on leave when they get physical work restrictions from their doctor for their pregnancy.

Of course, if you believe your employer fired you, demoted you, or reduced your hours just because you’re a woman, that’s a case of sex discrimination too.

Sexual harassment is of course a major form of hostile work environment sex discrimination.  Check out our sexual harassment page here.

Pay Discrimination and the Equal Pay Act

If you think that you’re being paid less for your work just because you’re a woman, then you’ve got a pay discrimination claim.  We prove these by comparing your wages or salary to other male employees in the same position.  If you make less for doing the same job, that’s good evidence, especially if you have more experience, better performance reviews, or more education and training.  We’ve even had some cases where women have made less than the male workers that they’re supervising.

Now, it can be hard for employees to get this kind of information regarding how much other employees are making.  Don’t worry about that – we’ll get that information from the employer in discovery.  We ask them to produce all pay documents for you and your co-workers; documents regarding each of your training, education, and experience; documents regarding all employees’ performance reviews; and documents regarding how and why they decided to pay each employee what they did.

Once we get those documents (and if the employer doesn’t willingly hand them over, the Court will after we make a motion to compel discovery), it becomes very difficult for the employer to deny pay discrimination.  Your employer will need to come up with some reason why it paid you less than male employees that you were more qualified than and who did the same job as you.  Especially if the employer did the same thing to other women, your employer will be very hard pressed to come up with a reason.

Pregnancy Discrimination

Your employer can’t make employment decisions about you just because you become pregnant.  Typically what we see happen is that a female employee will get certain pregnancy related work restrictions from her doctor (lifting restrictions, standing, bending, etc.) and give them to her employer.  The employer will then refuse to accommodate or honor the restrictions and either terminate the employee or put her on some kind of medical leave.

We prove pregnancy discrimination claims in a similar way to disability discrimination claims.  First, we’ll prove that you were qualified to perform the essential functions of your job, with or without reasonable accommodation.  Essential functions include the main tasks of your position and fundamental responsibilities, but not every marginal task.  We’ll establish that either you were capable of continuing to do your job as you always had, even before you were pregnant and got restrictions.  Or, we’ll show that you would have been able to continue to do your job if your employer just made some reasonable accommodations, such as: new ways of doing the job; different equipment that can help you; different hours; transfer or reassignment; or getting assistance on certain tasks from coworkers.

We usually have a big gift here from your employer because, oftentimes, they don’t engage in an interactive process with pregnant employees after getting the restrictions.  The law requires your employer to sit down with you after getting your restrictions and engage in an interactive process to discuss: the essential functions of your job; whether your restrictions prevent you from performing those functions; and whether reasonable accommodations may allow you to continue performing your job.  Many times the employer skips this altogether or, if the employer does it, it does a very perfunctory job and doesn’t engage in the interactive process in good faith.  The law allows for a presumption of pregnancy discrimination when the employer fails to engage in the interactive process.

Gender Discrimination

Sometimes, when employers discriminate on the basis of gender or sex, they’ll make up and offer a different, non-discriminatory reason for termination.  For example, your employer might claim that it terminated you for poor performance, or say that it underwent “restructuring.”  In order to win on a discrimination claim, employment lawyers have to prove that the reason offered by the employer is a pretextual reason that is just being said so that your employer can avoid having to say the actual, illegal reason for termination – gender discrimination.

We’ve got a couple ways to prove pretext on behalf of employees. First, we try to demonstrate that the reason given by the employer is just factually wrong. So, for example, if your employer claims that it terminated you for poor performance, but actually gave you high performance reviews for a number of years and has no written records of ever giving you discipline or counseling, then we’ve created a fact question for a jury regarding whether the reason given by the employer is the real reason for termination, or just pretext to mask sex discrimination.

Second, we can prove that the reason given by the employer isn’t the real reason for termination because it wasn’t equally applied to similarly situated employees. So, if your employer claims that it terminated you for poor performance, but your peers actually had equal or worse performance reviews than you – or documented performance problems that you didn’t have – than we’ve created a fact issue regarding whether the employer’s stated reason for termination is the actual reason, or just pretext to mask sex discrimination.

No.  Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the Minnesota Human Rights Act, and the Equal Pay Act all contain anti-retaliation provisions.  If your employer terminates you for making a complaint of sex discrimination, pay discrimination, or pregnancy discrimination, then you’ve got a retaliation case in addition to your gender discrimination case.

This is absolutely a good question to ask as you make a decision on whether to pursue a case in court or not.  Starting an employment case is a big decision and you should know what your potential return is for the investment of your time and energy.

The short answer is that the value of your case depends on a lot of things, like:

  • the strength of your case on the merits;
  • the amount of damages you’ve suffered;
  • whether your employer has the ability to pay a large amount; and
  • your tolerance for risk.

We get this question so much that we’ve created a separate, detailed page going through each of these factors, right here.

For employment sex discrimination claims, you may be entitled to back pay and front pay damages, emotional distress compensation, treble damages under the Minnesota Human Rights Act, punitive damages under both the Minnesota Human Rights Act and the federal Civil Rights Act, and your attorney fees and costs. The Equal Pay Act also allows for liquidated damages in the amount of your actual damages (that means you get twice what you’re owed in wages).

That’s a tough question to answer because there’s really no “average” settlement.  The value of an employment sex discrimination case depends on the strength of the case; the damages the employee suffered; the ability of the employer to pay a large amount (if the employer is insured, even better); and the employee’s tolerance for risk and willingness to go to trial.  Here’s a detailed breakdown of those factors.

But we know that many employees looking for answers right now just want to see some numbers from actual settlements, so here are some numbers.

  • We represented a woman, “Elissa,” who worked as a nursing assistant for several years and had great performance reviews. She was excited when she became pregnant.  Her doctor gave her some work restrictions, including lifting restrictions of no more than 25 pounds, to give to her employer.  Though her job description said that she needed to be able to lift 75 lbs., it wasn’t tied to actual essential functions that she did on a day to day basis.  Her employer flatly told her, “We don’t do accommodations.”  Her employer didn’t care when she said that she was able to continue doing her job as she always had and terminated her employment – it said she could re-apply after she had her baby.  We litigated this case all the way through summary judgment – the employer then settled for $275,000.

Please note that just because this employee received the above result doesn’t mean that’s what your case is worth.  This is just an example.  Your case value depends on a number of things.

First of all, if you’re searching for answers right now after losing your job, we’re very sorry that you’re in this position.  We know how tough it is to lose your job, especially when you’ve got family and other financial obligations.  It’s especially frustrating and hurtful when the termination is discriminatory.

Second, make sure that take advantage of state benefits designed to help people going through tough times.  Apply for unemployment benefits – here’s a link.  And, contact COBRA to make sure you and your family are covered for health insurance.

Third, write everything down that happened to you.  Write down the date that you were terminated, who terminated you, what they precisely said was the reason for your termination, and who else was present.  Write down whether you think the reason your employer gave you was accurate or not, and why.  Write down the names of employees that you think may have useful information.  Write down the types of documents or emails that you think may have good information about your case.  Write down everything – the reason for this is that your memory will probably fade over time and you want to document things while they’re fresh in your mind.  If you pursue a lawsuit, your trial likely won’t be for at least 12 to 18 months, so you want to have something that you can refer to – write everything down.

Fourth, immediately send a letter or email request to your employer requesting your personnel file and the reason for your termination.  Under Minnesota law, your employer needs to provide it to you.  If your employer hasn’t paid you all of your wages or given you your last paycheck, make sure to request those wages in writing also (by letter or email).

Fifth, call us to talk about your case.

You need to move quickly on these.  In Minnesota, you’ve got just one year from the date of the wrongful termination or last discriminatory act to bring a lawsuit or file a claim with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights.  You’ve only got 300 days from the date of the termination or last discriminatory act to file a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, if you want to bring federal claims under Title VII.

Contact Our Employment and Sex Discrimination Attorneys.

You must act quickly when it comes to employment claims. If you wait, there may be strict statutes of limitation that will bar you from filing any claim at all against your employer. Call Madia today to discuss your case.

First, contact our office and tell us about your situation. You’ll talk with our staff for about 5-10 minutes. They’ll get some basic information about you and your case.

There’s some information that we’ll need when you call. We will want to know who you worked for, what kind of work you did, for how long worked there, how much you earned, if/when you were terminated, the reason given by your employer for any discipline and termination, and why do you think your employer did something unlawful or wrongful. If you have this information handy, it will allow us to proceed more quickly.

We will get back to you shortly – usually within a few hours. If your potential case is a little outside of our wheelhouse, we may refer you to attorneys, agencies, or organizations that we think might be better suited to handle your situation. Our goal is to ensure you get the best and most appropriate help possible for your particular situation. If that’s not us, we’ll try to tell you immediately and point you in the right direction.

If we think that we might be able help you, we’ll set an appointment for you to talk with one of our employment lawyers. We’ll discuss your case, and give you our honest assessment of its strengths, weaknesses, and value. If we then mutually agree that Madia will represent you, we will talk about the process of moving forward with your case.

When you talk with our employment lawyers, please be sure to have all relevant documents that you have in your possession. For example, that could include:  pay-stubs, personnel files, employment handbooks/policies, letters from your employer (including your termination letter), any text messages or emails that you think are important, and any other documents that you think might be helpful.


We have a process that works in getting exceptional results for our clients. 

We are trial lawyers who prepare every case for trial from Day 1. Investigation and legal research are the first things we do, and we spend a lot of time on them. Because we haven’t filed the case yet, we have complete control – the defendant has no say and we want to use this time wisely.  We interview witnesses that can help us prove the case.  We’ll ask you for all relevant documents in your possession and review those carefully as well.  We also will spend some time conducting legal research about unique issues in the case.  We pull the jury instructions that the judge will ultimately charge the jury with after closing arguments at trial. 

Our next step is typically to send a demand letter to the defendant. In the letter, we thoroughly lay out: the facts surrounding the defendant’s misconduct; the applicable law (including statutory and case citations) that make clear that the defendant broke the law; an analysis of your damages and the defendant’s monetary exposure; a demand for a monetary amount to settle the claim; and an instruction to preserve all relevant evidence, including electronic evidence. The point of this letter is to give the defendant a chance to do the right thing and pay a fair amount before litigation, and to give the defendant an opportunity to present any defenses or evidence it wants us to consider before moving forward.  Sometimes we skip the demand letter if there are strategic reasons to move straight to filing, but we typically give defendants a chance to do the right thing.

If early negotiations fail, great – we file a Complaint and serve the defendant with it. A Complaint is a legal document that states the facts of what happened and alleges how the defendant broke the law. It formally starts the lawsuit.  Many lawyers draft complaints in a general and relatively vague way, just to get it done and filed – because that’s all that’s really required.  We take a different view. We view the Complaint as our first chance to tell your story to the judge, and we take it seriously. So we draft detailed complaints and include legal citations to statutory and judicial authority on unique points.  Sometimes we’ll include a number of exhibits, diagrams, or other demonstrative aids to help the Court understand our claims.  A secondary benefit of this approach is that defense lawyers reading the Complaint can become educated on the problems of their case and the state of the law – sometimes this leads them to reach out to us shortly after service of the Complaint to re-initiate settlement negotiations.  Of course, by that time, the price for settlement has gone up.

Some lawyers view written discovery as a necessary evil – something to get done and out of the way before depositions.  Not us.  Written discovery is a gift and an opportunity.  We spend a great deal of time crafting requests for documents and interrogatories (questions for the defendant to answer in writing) that are specific, detailed, and tailored to get what we need to prove our case.  Many lawyers – even great ones – think written discovery is a waste of time because defense lawyers typically answer them on behalf of their clients and can try to stonewall with legalese and objections.  We view this as a wonderful opportunity.  In our experience, most defense lawyers can’t help themselves when answering discovery: they over-state their defenses and make assertions that their clients will not be able to support in testimony. So we get to commit the defendant to defenses that they can’t back up, leading to contradictions, confusion, and chaos in their depositions later on.  We also use Requests for Admission – which many lawyers don’t.  The Federal Rules and Minnesota Rules of Civil Procedure allow us to ask defendants to “admit” certain facts.  We send them RFAs that are very difficult for them to deny.  Of course, they do it anyway, but that sets them up later for cost and fee-shifting, which the Rules mandate for defendants that deny RFAs that are later proven true.  And usually, we can get the defendants’ own witnesses to admit facts that their defense lawyers denied in RFA.  That’s a great situation that leads to more chaos and confusion on the defense side.

One last point on written discovery – we send multiple waves of it throughout discovery.  We typically send 3 or 4 sets of written discovery requests to defendants throughout discovery.  This compounds the problems for them, because the defense lawyers continue to overstate their defenses, but now run into contradictions from not just the defendant witnesses’ deposition testimony, but also their own previous discovery responses.  This makes for a great record that we can present to the judge at dispositive motions, and use for impeachment at trial.

This is our chance to question relevant witnesses, on the record with a court reporter (we typically videotape important depositions as well). We get to confront the defense witnesses with all of the evidence we’ve developed through written discovery and document production. By this time, the defendant put its witnesses in an impossible position through its written defenses, which are often untrue and indefensible.  So the witness has to either lie to support the defense, or admit it’s not true.  That’s a dilemma that works for our clients either way, no matter which option the witness takes.  We use depositions to expose contradictions, create a record for dispositive motions, lock witnesses into their stories so that we can impeach them later at trial, and sometimes, to show defense lawyers how hopeless their case is.  We often calls from defense counsel shortly after depositions of their clients, seeking to re-start settlement negotiations.

The defendant will usually make a motion for summary judgment after discovery, asking the Court to throw out the case without having a jury trial. Because we’ve hit discovery so hard – both through written discovery and depositions – this is a tough motion for defense counsel to write in our cases.  We draft our response for the Court and now get to bring everything together: the admissions, contradictions, nonsense, and obvious fact disputes that we’ve uncovered through discovery.  We tell a compelling story that wraps everything together for the Court and makes clear that the defense motion has to be denied, and the defendant needs to face a jury for its conduct.

Sometimes, we’ll even make an affirmative motion for summary judgment, asking the Court to grant judgment in favor of our client without a trial. These motions are generally rare for plaintiffs to make, because the defendant can usually point to some fact dispute on its intent or some other factor that necessitates a trial. But we make affirmative summary judgment motions significantly more than is typical for plaintiffs, and that’s because the work we put in during discovery helps build a fantastic record to do so.

After the Court denies the defense motion for summary judgment, the defendant has only 2 options: 1) do the right thing and pay you a fair amount to our client to settle your claim (usually much, much more at this point than the defendant could have paid at the beginning of the case to settle); or 2) face a jury for its conduct and risk an enormous verdict. This is the dilemma that we have been creating and forcing the defendant into for the entire case. We’ll engage in settlement negotiations at this point from a position of extreme strength, mainly because most defendants are (rightly) terrified of facing a jury to defend their conduct.

This is, candidly, our favorite part of the case – why we went to law school: to hold the powerful accountable before juries.  We prepare heavily for trial, including: detailed witness preparation, focus groups, and mock trials.  At this point, the potential outcomes and consequences for the defendant are much more severe than if it simply did the right thing at the beginning of the case and paid a fair amount to compensate our client for its misconduct.  As we advocate to the jury for our client, we’re also mindful of protecting the record so that defendants will be unsuccessful in attacking the verdict in post-trial motions or appeal.

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