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Are Real Estate Agents Protected from Harassment and Discrimination under the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA)?

The Minnesota Human Rights Act (“MHRA” or “Act”) protects individuals from discrimination in the workplace,[1] including sexual harassment as a form of gender discrimination.[2] Workers are further protected against termination, demotion, or other retaliatory employment actions in response to reporting discrimination or sexual harassment.[3] Ultimately, the MHRA was designed to “provide more expansive protections to Minnesotans than federal law,” its provisions intended to be “construed liberally.”[4]

Enacted in 1973, the law under the MHRA is generally well-developed. That said, few cases have been litigated regarding MHRA protections for real estate agents in particular. This gap in litigation has led to a gray zone surrounding the question of whether real estate agents receive MHRA protection for workplace harassment and discrimination.

This question can be answered through two main lenses: (1) by considering real estate agents as employees for purposes of the MHRA or (2) by looking to other subdivisions of the MHRA that grant real estate agents protection regardless of employee status.

The MHRA expressly protects employees from unfair discriminatory practices and retaliation.[5] Courts traditionally look to a variety of factors to determine whether an individual constitutes an employee or an independent contractor.[6] Such factors include, for example, the method of payment, who provides the necessary tools/office space, and the level of control the employer has over the worker.[7] Under Minnesota law, the level of control an employer has over an individual is the most important factor—the more control, the more likely that person constitutes an employee.[8] While the control factor plays heavily into MHRA cases, courts have opted to reframe the analysis as one that examines the economic realities underlying the work relationship to decide “whether the worker is likely to be susceptible to the discriminatory practices Title VII was designed to eliminate.”[9] Given the close working relationship between real estate agents and their brokerages (which agents typically have exclusive contracts with), Minnesota courts would likely consider real estate agents to be employees for purposes of the MHRA, as their position leaves them “susceptible to the discriminatory practices Title VII was designed to eliminate.”[10]

That said, because the MHRA was designed to be widely inclusive, real estate agents may find protection under other sections of the Act regardless of employee status.

The MHRA also prohibits any “person having the right to sell, rent or lease any real property from “discriminat[ing] against any person or group of persons because of … sex … in the terms, conditions or privileges of the sale, rental or lease of any real property or in the furnishing of facilities or services in connection therewith.”[11] Current case law addressing this section of the MHRA primarily concerns the relationship between a seller and buyer or renter of real property.[12] However, the language of the statute prohibiting sex discrimination in connection with real estate services may apply to the broker-agent relationship. As service providers in the real estate industry, real estate agents may fall under the protection afforded by the MHRA.

Similarly, the MHRA prohibits “any real estate broker, real estate salesperson, or employee or agent thereof [from] intentionally engag[ing] in any reprisal against any person because that person opposed” a forbidden.[13] The language “prohibiting reprisal against any person” likely supports any report by a real estate agent of sexual harassment or discrimination as protected, regardless of employee status.

Finally, the MHRA forbids “business discrimination.” In other words, contracting parties cannot “discriminate on the basic terms, conditions, or performance of the contract because of a person’s race, national origin, color, sex, sexual orientation, or disability.”[14] In the agent-broker context, the following examples would constitute business discrimination under the MHRA:

  • A broker or agency’s termination of a real estate agent’s contract because of discriminatory reasons;
  • A broker or agency’s termination of a real estate agent’s contract because the agent reported discrimination or sexual harassment; and
  • A broker or agency offering a contract to a real estate agent contingent on that agent submitting to romantic or sexual advances.

Ultimately, the law governing the broker-agent relationship under the MHRA is slim. While this article provides a general overview of relevant Minnesota law, each case presents unique circumstances that are best analyzed by a practicing employment law attorney.

NOTES:

[1] Minn. Stat. Ann. § 363A.08.

[2] Minn. Stat. § 363A.03, subd. 13.

[3] Minn. Stat. Ann. § 363A.15.

[4] Kenneh v. Homeward Bound, Inc., 944 N.W.2d 222, 229 (Minn. 2020) (quoting Minn. Stat. § 363A.04).

[5] Minn. Stat. Ann. § 363A.08.

[6] Creative Non-Violence v. Reid, 490 U.S. 730, 751-52 (1989).

[7] Abel v. Abbott Nw. Hosp., 947 N.W.2d 58, 75 (Minn. 2020).

[8] Id.

[9] Wilde v. County of Kandiyohi, 15 F.3d 103, 105 (8th Cir. 1994).

[10] Id.

[11] Minn. Stat. Ann. § 363A.09, Subd. 1(2).

[12] See, e.g., Fletcher Props. v. City of Minneapolis, 947 N.W.2d 1, 16 (Minn. 2020) (noting that the refusal to rent property because of public assistance use constitutes an unfair discriminatory practice); Fletcher Props. v. City of Minneapolis, 931 N.W.2d 410, 416 (Minn. Ct. App. 2019) (noting that landlords cannot discriminate against tenants with regard to public assistance status).

[13] Minn. Stat. Ann. § 363A.15.

[14] Minn. Stat. § 363A.17(3); see also Minn. Stat. § 363A.03, subd. 30 (“person” includes partnership, association, [and] corporation . . .”).

Minnesota is an At-Will Employment State, What Does That Mean?

When you hear that Minnesota is an “at-will” employment state, you may wonder what that means for you as an employee. It simply means you can quit your job for any reason at any time, you do not have to give notice nor a reason to your employer for leaving your position.

However, it also means an employer can terminate your employment for any reason at any time as long as the reason for termination is not illegal. For example, it is illegal for an employer to terminate employment based on an employee’s race, age, sex, sexual orientation, or religion, to name a few protected classes and statuses. Similarly, it is illegal for an employer to terminate an employee because the employee reported something unlawful, like discrimination or corporate wrongdoing.

Being an “at-will” employment state makes it easy for an employee and their employer to part ways if the position is not working for one or both of the parties. But, if you feel you have been wrongfully terminated based on discrimination, contact us at Kitzer Rochel. Our experienced employment law attorneys would be happy to discuss your case and help you understand your legal rights and options.

Is Long Haul COVID-19 a Disability under the Law?

After dealing with COVID-19 for over two years, many people who have dealt with the novel coronavirus are also dealing with longer term symptoms and they are not going away easily. This is known as “Long Haul COVID-19.” Long Haul COVID-19 is becoming more common and impacting the lives of many people. It causes many problems that medical professionals and scientists are still working to understand.

For example, Long Haul COVID-19 can lead to cognitive difficulties and make it difficult for employees to complete their work responsibilities in the same manner they could before becoming infected.

This raises the question: is Long Haul COVID-19 considered an “actual” disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)?

According to the U.S. Department of Health Human Services, Long Haul COVID-19 can be a disability under the ADA if it substantially limits one or more major life activities. This includes any physical or mental impairment caused by Long Haul COVID-19, so long as it substantially limits a major life activity. The law is very similar under the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA). The MHRA is Minnesota’s law protecting workers who are disabled, which may include Long Haul COVID-19.

The symptoms of Long Haul COVID-19 vary widely and can be different for everyone. Symptoms can last anywhere between weeks to months or even longer. Every case of Long Haul COVID-19 is different. Therefore, an assessment must be made on a case-by-case basis to determine whether a person’s case of Long Haul COVID-19 substantially limits a major life activity.

If an employee has Long Haul COVID-19 that substantially limits one or more major life activities, that employee is entitled to the same protections from discrimination as any person with a disability under the ADA or MHRA.

This also requires employers make reasonable accommodation for employees who have Long Haul COVID-19, so long as it substantially or materially limits a major life activity.

An employer’s requirement to make such accommodations is based on many factors, for example, the size of the employer and the job duties the employee is responsible for based on their job role. Thus, it is important to seek legal advice if you have questions about your specific situation.

If you feel you have experienced discrimination and/or retaliation at work, based on Long Haul COVID-19  symptoms, our attorneys at Kitzer Rochel, PLLP are here to help. We advocate on behalf of employees facing discrimination, retaliation, and whistleblower issues in the workplace. Contact us today for a case evaluation.

 

Brian Rochel Presents at CLE on Minnesota Employment Law

On March 30, 2022, Brian Rochel presented on a panel entitled “McDonnell Douglas and the Direct Method – A New Normal on the Horizon?” The presentation focused on the McDonnell Douglas (or indirect) burden shifting method for proving discrimination and retaliation claims. The Minnesota Supreme Court is currently deciding whether Minnesota courts will continue applying the McDonnell Douglas framework. In Hanson v. DNR, the Supreme Court was asked to abolish use of the McDonnell Douglas framework because it has become problematic over the several decades it has developed.

Hanson, along with amici curiae Minnesota NELA and ELA-UM, argued that McDonnell Douglas has been misused on Rule 56 and resulted in dismissing employment claims that should appropriately be tried to a jury.

In the March 30 CLE, Brian laid out the arguments made by the employee in Hanson, and the panelists discussed the pros and cons of McDonnell Douglas in employment litigation–as well as what employment litigation may look like in the absence of the familiar framework.

The panel also discussed Friend v. Gopher Company, Inc., a Minnesota Court of Appeals case holding that McDonnell Douglas is not required to be applied in every case. Brian argued that means that regardless of the Supreme Court’s decision in Hanson v. DNR, employees may still choose to forego McDonnell Douglas in favor of the “direct method” to prove cases at trial and present evidence on summary judgment.

A decision is expected in Hanson v. DNR soon, check back for more updates. If you have questions about Minnesota employment law, proving claims of discrimination or retaliation, or related topics, please contact us.

Former Employee Awarded $1.1 Million in Verdict for Sexual Harassment Lawsuit

In March 2022, former Chisago County crime analyst Michelle Jacobson was awarded $1.1 million by a jury in her lawsuit against her former employer, Chisago County Sheriff’s Office and former Sheriff Richard Duncan. Ms. Jacobson’s complaint alleged Mr. Duncan sexually harassed her during her employment. Judge Susan Richard Nelson said that Mr. Duncan’s actions were “extreme and outrageous.”

Under the Minnesota Human Rights Act, Minn. Stat. §363A et seq., sexual harassment is recognized as an unfair discriminatory employment practice and is illegal. Ms. Jacobson experienced sexual harassment in the form of sexual advances by her supervisor.

If you have experienced sexual harassment or discrimination the workplace, contact us. Our experienced employment law attorneys would be happy to discuss your case and help you understand your legal rights and options.

What Does “Protected Status” Mean in Discrimination Law?

Have you suffered discrimination at your workplace? Are you wondering if there is anything you can do about it? How can you protect yourself? What laws are set in place to protect employees like you?

Unfortunately, these are all questions that some employees may encounter during their employment. This may involve confusing legal terminology, laws and policies that can be difficult to understand, especially for someone who may be experiencing discrimination at the time. The good news is that there are laws set in place to protect employees from being discriminated against by an employer.

The Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA) and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act protect workers from discrimination. The laws refer to protected classes. It is illegal to discriminate against an employee because of their membership in a protected class. When it comes to employment discrimination, protected classes refer to a person’s race, color, creed, religion, national origin, sex, marital status, disability, public assistance, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, familial status, and local human rights commission activity.

This means that employers cannot discriminate against employees, or treat them differently, based on any of these protected classes. Now, discrimination can look different for everyone, and it can involve various types of negative treatment against someone, so it is important to speak to an attorney that specializes in these types of cases. The law in this area is complicated and changes frequently.

If you feel you have experienced discrimination or retaliation at work because you belong to a protected class, our attorneys at Kitzer Rochel are here to help. Please contact us today. We advocate on behalf of employees facing discrimination, retaliation, and whistleblower issues in the workplace.

How Do I Know If I Can Request FMLA Leave?

Employees may request leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

To be eligible for FMLA leave, an employee must have worked for the employer for at least 12 months and have 1,250 hours of service in the previous 12 months. In addition, the employer must have at least 50 employees employed within 75 miles of the location the employee works at.

An employee may request FMLA for one of the following reasons:

  • Incapacity due to pregnancy, prenatal medical care or childbirth;
  • To care for the employee’s child after birth, or placement for adoption or foster care;
  • To care for the employee’s spouse son, daughter or parent who has a serious health condition; or
  • If the employee has a serious health condition that makes the employee unable to perform their job duties.

After an employee confirms that they meet the eligibility requirements and that they have a reason that entitles such employee to receive FMLA benefits, but their employer has denied their FMLA request, an employee may file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor. An employee may also file a private lawsuit against their employer.

An employer cannot interfere with, restrain, or deny any employee of any right provided under FMLA. It is also unlawful for any employer to discriminate against an employee, penalize an employee or terminate an employee for submitting an FMLA request or for using their FMLA benefits.

Employees of an airline flight crew, military members and/or military families may be entitled to additional benefits and should consult with an employment attorney if they have more specific questions.

If you feel you have experienced discrimination or retaliation at work related to FMLA, our attorneys at Kitzer Rochel are here to help. Contact us today. We advocate on behalf of employees facing discrimination, retaliation, and whistleblower issues in the workplace.

Governor Walz’s Recent COVID-19 Order Gives Employees Important Rights

On May 13, 2020, Minnesota Governor Tim Walz issued Executive Order 20-54, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic crisis. Among other things, the Governor’s executive order provides rights to Minnesota employees that all workers should be aware of.

First, the executive order prohibits employers from discriminating or retaliating against employees who ask their employers questions or expresses concerns about COVID-19 (the Coronavirus), or their health and safety regarding the virus outbreak.

Second, the executive order generally prohibits employers from discriminating or retaliating against employees who wear gloves, cloth, eye protection, or other protective gear in the course of their work.

Third, the executive order gives employees the right to refuse to work under conditions that they, in good faith, reasonably believe pose an imminent danger of death or serious bodily harm.

Fourth, the executive order gives employees the right to request the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry (“DLI”) conduct an inspection of their workplace if they suspect a COVID-19 threat to health and/or safety is present.

Lastly, the executive order gives employees the right to seek reasonable accommodations related to COVID-19, including the ability to work from home, if possible.

All of these protections contain important caveats, so if you have questions about Executive Order 20-54, or COVID-19 at work, you should contact an experienced employment lawyer.

If you are an employee who has experienced difficult circumstances with your employer related to COVID-19, we are here to help. Please contact Teske, Katz, Kitzer, and Rochel, PLLP. We advocate on behalf of employees facing discrimination, retaliation, and whistleblower related issues in the workplace.

SCOTUS Grants Writ of Certiorari for Three LGBT Employment Discrimination Cases

On April 22, 2019, the Supreme Court granted petitions for writs of certiorari in three LGBT employment cases. Each of the three cases addresses whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 offers protection against discrimination in employment on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

In Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, the Plaintiff, Gerald Lynn Bostock, claims his sexual orientation as a gay man was the reason for his termination from Clayton County as a Child Welfare Services Coordinator. The District Court ruled that he had no viable claim because Title VII does not prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The Eleventh Circuit established the precedent that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is not a form of sex discrimination protected by Title VII.

In contrast, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals held in Zarda v. Altitude Express, Inc., that sexual orientation is protected under Title VII, because the Supreme Court has ruled previously that gender stereotyping violates the statute. The Second Circuit held discrimination based on sexual orientation was an “actionable subset of sex discrimination” because you cannot address sexual orientation without consideration of the individual’s gender and the related stereotypes.

In R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes v. EEOC, et al., the Sixth Circuit also held that Title VII protects employees who are transgender. Employee Aimee Stephens was terminated when she informed her coworkers that “she was undergoing a gender transition from male to female and intended to dress in appropriate business attire to work as a woman.” Two weeks later she was terminated because the funeral home owner thought he would be “violating God’s commands” by allowing Stephens to dress in women’s clothing. The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed a lawsuit on Stephens’ behalf, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit ruled for the EEOC and Stephens.

8th Circuit Reverses Summary Judgment on FMLA Claims

The Eighth Circuit reversed summary judgment on an FMLA entitlement and discrimination claim.  In Hudson v. Tyson Fresh Meats, Inc., the Court found that sufficient evidence of FMLA discrimination and interference existed to allow the matter to proceed to trial.   ___ F.3d. ___, 2015 U.S. App. LEXIS 8479 (8th Cir. May 28, 2015).  

Plaintiff Delbert Hudson was fired after taking a short leave for back problems and depression.  Hudson’s girlfriend, also an employee at Tyson, told Hudson’s supervisor that he would be absent for a few days, and Plaintiff texted his supervisor about being out. When he returned to work, Hudson was fired for failing to call in each day pursuant to company policy.  Hudson sued for FMLA interference and discrimination.

The district court granted summary judgment on both claims, and the Court of Appeals reversed.  First, the Court held that Tyson failed to restore Hudson to the same or similar position after his leave, as required by the FMLA.  Tyson argued that it “returned Hudson to his normal job duties for a person Human Resources was investigating,” but the Court rejected that argument because Tyson failed to cite any authority to support its legal theory.

Next, the Court held that Hudson FMLA discrimination claim should go to trial.  Specifically, the Court held that Tyson’s shifting reason for termination (first for failing to provide notice, then for not providing notice in the appropriate manner), and evidence suggesting Tyson did not consistently enforce the call-in policy could convince a jury that its alleged reason for termination was a pretext to discrimination.

The decision can be found here.  The FMLA entitles employees to take legally-protected leave, and protects employees from discrimination and retaliation for excercising rights under the FMLA. In addition, many states (including Minnesota) have passed their own versions of leave laws that may afford even more protections than the FMLA. If you have questions about the FMLA, or any other employment law issue, contact Teske Katz Kitzer & Rochel