Minnesota Supreme Court sides with Department of Human Rights; Court recognizes all state workers protected in Minnesota Human Rights Act

Minnesota Supreme Court sides with Department of Human Rights; Court recognizes all state workers protected in Minnesota Human Rights Act Photo: KSTP.

Tommy Wiita
Updated: July 30, 2020 07:09 PM
Created: July 29, 2020 05:43 PM

On Wednesday, the Minnesota Supreme Court sided with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, represented by Attorney General Keith Ellison, in the high stakes employment discrimination case Meagan Abel v. Abbott Northwestern Hospital and St. Mary's University Minnesota. 

The supreme court agreed with the department that compensation is not required for an individual to be considered an employee under the Minnesota Human Rights Act's employment protections. 


"For the first time in Minnesota history, the highest court in the state ruled Minnesota's civil rights law protects unpaid interns," said Minnesota Department of Human Rights Commissioner Rebecca Lucero. "The Court correctly recognized that all Minnesota workers, including interns, are entitled to the protections of the Minnesota Human Rights Act."

Additionally, the state's supreme court also sided with the state's Department of Human Rights by ruling that harassment, contributing to a hostile work environment and occurring outside the one-year statute of limitations, should be taken into account when determining if the state's civil rights law was violated. 

According to a news release, during the course of her unpaid practicum at Abbott Northwestern Hospital, Abel's supervisor reportedly referred to Abel as "the brown one" and told students that he is "good in bed" during highly sexualized role-playing. 

When Abel reported the harassment, neither the university nor the hospital acted on it. The court's ruling means that workplace harassment, like these statements, can and should be taken into account when analyzing employment discrimination claims even if the harassment occurred more than a year before a discrimination claim is filed. 

"Living a life free of sexual and racial harassment is every Minnesotan's civil right," said Lucero. "Abel's civil rights were denied when she faced sexual and racial harassment. Her rights were again denied when she reported the harassment and was ignored. Today, the Minnesota Supreme Court affirmed that her voice and experience matters."

Allina Health provided the following statement to KSTP Thursday afternoon in response to the ruling.

“Allina Health is committed to providing excellent health care to our community. We are also committed to an inclusive and respectful environment for all individuals. We have a robust reporting process and give individuals multiple avenues through which they can raise concerns. Appropriate disciplinary actions are taken based on what is found.

In late 2015, Ms. Abel, a student in a practicum program, raised concerns about a program director. Allina Health, consistent with its values and commitment to a respectful workplace, immediately looked into the concerns raised at the time and took prompt action. Within days, Allina Health removed him from the program and presented him with a final written warning. He subsequently resigned from Allina Health.

Ms. Abel filed suit against Allina Health in March 2018. The Hennepin County District Court dismissed her claims as legally insufficient in August 2018, that dismissal was affirmed in 2019 by the Minnesota Court of Appeals. The Minnesota Supreme Court affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded to the district court for further proceedings. There have been no findings of unlawful conduct by Allina Health and we will continue to vigorously defend this case.”

MADEL PA Partner Matt Pelikan, attorney for Meagan Abel, offered the following statement to KSTP:

"As a required part of her doctoral program at St. Mary's, Ms. Abel participated in a practicum with Allina Health System at Abbott Northwestern Hospital, where Ms. Abel faced egregious and ongoing sexual and racial discrimination.

"We are delighted that the Minnesota Supreme Court applied its existing precedents to clearly protect all Minnesotans from ongoing discrimination and, for the first time, to clearly state that unpaid interns are protected from discrimination under the Human Rights Act. The Minnesota Supreme Court's ruling is a clear victory in the fight to end discrimination in Minnesota.

"Allina and St. Mary's argued that maintaining a hostile, discriminatory environment did not violate the Human Rights Act, even when their employees, patients, or students faced ongoing sexual harassment and racial discrimination on a daily basis, discrimination and harassment that was so severe it could make their employees or students too fearful to go to the hospital or school. Allina and St. Mary's also argued that they owed no duty to protect their employees, unpaid interns, or students from sexual harassment and racial discrimination. The Minnesota Supreme Court rejected both arguments. The Court concluded that unpaid interns are protected as employees under the Human Rights act and concluded that "maintenance of a discriminatory system" constitutes a violation of the Human Rights Act.

"Allina and St. Mary's have spent big defending their right to discriminate against employees, students, and patients. We are very happy the Supreme Court validated Ms. Abel's efforts to do something Allina and St. Mary's refuse to do: stand up to discrimination, sexual harassment, and racism and hold themselves accountable for the illegal and discriminatory conduct happening under their roofs. Rather than join Ms. Abel to combat discrimination, sexual harassment, and racism, Allina and St. Mary's went all the way to the Minnesota Supreme Court to defend their right to discriminate and to make it harder for all Minnesotans facing discrimination to find justice. We are happy that the Court applied existing law to reject Allina and St. Mary's high-dollar efforts to make it easier to discriminate in Minnesota.  

"This victory at the Minnesota Supreme Court once again shows Ms. Abel's courage in standing up against discrimination, even when those who were supposed to protect her, like Allina and St. Mary's, failed to do so. We are happy to be in this fight with her and we will continue to vigorously seek justice for Ms. Abel and anyone who faces the severe sexual harassment and racism that Ms. Abel experienced at Allina and St. Mary's."

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