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Wrongful Termination 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.
Employers can – and often do – make mistakes or bad business decisions when they terminate employees. Even if an employer’s actions are unfair, unethical, or bad business, the employer hasn’t broken the law unless they make an employment decision such as termination for an illegal reason.
Sometimes, employment lawyers refer to these claims as “wrongful termination” claims. We mainly use “wrongful termination” as shorthand for clients – most of the illegal reasons for termination that form the basis for a lawsuit are discrimination, retaliation, or whistleblowing.
Illegal Reasons for Terminating an Employee
There are several illegal reasons for termination that could form the basis for a wrongful termination claim:
- The first illegal reason for termination is discrimination on the basis of race, age, sex, disability, or sexual orientation. Both Minnesota state law (through the Minnesota Human Rights Act) and federal law (through Title VII, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act) prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of inherent and arbitrary criteria like race, age, gender, disability, or sexual orientation.
- The second unlawful and wrongful reason for termination is retaliation or reprisal by an employer against an employee for making a complaint or report of discrimination. The Minnesota Human Rights Act and Title VII both prevent employers from retaliating against employees for making a report of unlawful discrimination – either against themselves or other employees.
- The third illegal reason for termination is retaliation for whistleblowing. Both federal law and state law protect whistleblower employees from suffering retaliation at their jobs for reporting conduct that they believe to be unlawful.
- The federal government allows certain employees up to 90 days in a calendar year for medical leave for themselves or to care for family members through the Family and Medical Leave Act. An illegal reason for termination is if an employer retaliates against an employee for exercising his or her FMLA rights.
- Minnesota protects its injured employees by preventing employers from retaliating against employees who get injured on the job and seek workers compensation benefits. Workers compensation retaliation is illegal. It is illegal for employers to terminate employees just because the employee was injured and sought workers compensation.
- Both the Minnesota Fair Labor Standards Act and the federal Fair Labor Standards Act protect employees from termination or firing in retaliation for questioning, make a complaint regarding, or opposing unlawful pay practices, including an employer not paying proper overtime or requiring off-the-clock work. If you think you were terminated because you questioned your employer’s pay practices, you may have a wrongful termination claim.
The “At Will” Employment Rule Doesn’t Apply if You Have an Employment Contract.The major exception to the at-will employment rule discussed above is if you have an employment contract with your employer. Most people don’t, so the at-will doctrine (and the illegal reasons for termination stated above) apply to most employees in Minnesota. But if you have an employment contract, the terms of your contract may provide additional protections to you. The specific protections vary from contract to contract, so we’d need to see it first, but generally speaking: many employment contracts set out specific reasons for which employment may be terminated “with cause” or “without cause.” If your employer did not terminate you for one of those reasons – following the procedures specified – you may have a wrongful termination claim based on your employment contract.
Constructive discharge is a legal concept that you can use to prove a wrongful termination claim even if your employer didn’t technically fire you and you actually quit. It makes for a tougher case than if you were fired, but there’s a way to do it. You need to show that your employer made working conditions for you so terrible and onerous that you had no choice but to resign. If you can prove that, then constructive discharge applies and you can pursue a wrongful termination claim even if you quit and were not fired.
Your employer probably isn’t going to admit that it terminated you for an illegal, discriminatory reason. Usually, when employers discriminate on the basis of age, race, disability, gender, or sexual orientation, the employer will make up and offer a different, non-discriminatory reason for termination. For example, the employer might claim that it terminated you for poor performance. In order to win on a wrongful termination or discrimination claim, you must prove that the reason offered by the employer is a pretextual reason that is just being said so that the employer can avoid having to say the actual, illegal reason for termination.
We’ve got a couple ways that to prove pretext on behalf of employees. First, you can 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 a diazepam reason designed to mask unlawful 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 the employer claims that it terminated you for poor performance, but the 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 a pretextual reason designed to mask unlawful discrimination.
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 wrongful termination claims based on discrimination, 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 Title VII, and your attorney fees and costs. You may even be entitled to get your job back.
For workers compensation retaliation actions, Minnesota allows plaintiffs to recover back and front pay damages, punitive damages, and attorney fees and hard costs.
Under the Family Medical Leave Act, plaintiff employees may recover lost back pay and front pay, plus an email amount as liquidated damages, in addition to your attorney fees and costs.
That’s a tough question to answer because there’s really no “average” settlement. The value of a wrongful termination 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 wrongfully terminated employees looking for answers right now just want to see some numbers from actual settlements, so here are some numbers. You’ll note that oftentimes, the larger an employee’s tolerance for risk and the farther the employee went in the process, the more valuable the case.
- We represented an African-American employee who was termianted 2 days after he made a complaint of race discrimination. He had no prior disciplinary history in the 2 years he worked at the company. The merits of the case were strong and the defense had insurance, so collectability wasn’t an issue. The case settled after just one deposition for $180,000.
- We represented an office employee in an age discrimination case against her former employer. The strength of her case was ok, but we did a good job through discovery building up fact issues to survive summary judgment. The employee had greater tolerance for risk than the maintenance worker from the previous example – she was fine taking the case through summary judgment. After we beat her employer’s motion for summary judgment, the case settled for $185,000.
- We sued a large employer – a fortune 100 company – for disability discrimination on behalf of a longtime maintenance worker. This case had every ingredient for a high settlement: the employee had a strong case; she had large damages as she’d worked there for 15 years; the company was large; and the employee had a high tolerance for risk. We litigated for nearly 2 years. Right before trial, the company paid $400,000 to settle the case.
- We sued an employer on behalf of an African-American line employee who was terminated within a week of making a claim of discrimination. Prior to any depositions, the company settled for $486,000.
- We represented a teacher who blew the whistle on discriminatory practices against students by the St. Paul Public School District. On the eve of trial, the District settled for $525,000.
- We represented a physician who sued his former clinic for retaliation, because they terminated him for complaining that its actions against another physician were racially discriminatory. The clinic refused to settle, so the case went to trial, where the jury awarded $1.2 million.
- We represented a physician who sued his former clinic for disability discrimination and breach of fiduciary duty (he had an employment contract with the clinic). This employee had a very high tolerance for risk – he wanted to go all the way through trial. So we did – in exchange for accepting the risk of trial, he got a great verdict: the jury awarded nearly $1.3 million for his case.
Please note that just because these employees received the above results doesn’t mean that’s what your case is worth. These are just examples. Your case value depends on a number of things.
You need to move quickly on these. In Minnesota, you’ve got just one year from the date of the wrongful termination 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 to file a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, if you want to bring claims under Title VII, the Americans with Disabilities Act, or the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.
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 when the termination is wrongful, illegal, and unfair.
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.
Contact Our Minnesota Employment and Wrongful Termination 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 Law 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 Law 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.
THE MADIA Law WAY
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.