In one of the last decisions of 2010, a Minnesota federal judge issued an opinion that flipped on its head the statutory time limitations imposed upon an individual’s right to sue under the Minnesota Human Rights Act (“MHRA”), greatly eroding an employer’s ability to determine predict when the threat of litigation is over.  The MHRA prohibits unlawful discrimination in employment and, like many state anti-discrimination laws, imposes time limitations as to when an aggrieved individual can commence litigation.  A claimant has the choice of filing a charge of discrimination or commencing litigation within one year of the alleged unlawful employment action.  If an individual chooses to file a charge, with either the Minnesota Department of Human Rights (“MDHR”) or the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), he or she must obtain a right to sue notice prior to commencing a civil lawsuit.  In cases where the individual files a charge, but decides to withdraw the charge and pursue litigation, the MHRA mandates: “the charging party shall notify the commissioner of an intention to bring a civil action, which shall be commenced within 90 days of giving the notice.”  Minn. Stat. § 363A.33.  Until recently, courts have interpreted this provision to mean the individual must commence a civil action within 90 days after notifying the commission his or her intent to sue.  This interpretation may no longer be applicable.

On December 23, 2010, in Beliveau v. The Saint Paul Area Council of Churches, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 135902 (D. Minn. Dec. 23, 2010), United States District Court Judge Donovan Frank, contrary to the direct language of the MHRA and court decisions interpreting the MHRA’s time limitation provision, ruled that the 90 day limitation did not begin to run until the individual received notice from the MDHR acknowledging the request of dismissal.  This interpretation provided plaintiff in Beliveau additional time to commence the civil action against her former employer.  The plaintiff in Beliveau filed a civil lawsuit 112 days after notifying the MDHR of her intent to sue, 89 days after she claimed to have received notice from the MDHR dismissing her action.  The debate as to when notice was received arises often under statutes subject to jurisdiction of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which require filing of suit within 90 days after receipt of notice of dismissal by the agency. 

Based on what appeared to be an untimely filing of the complaint, defendant filed a motion to dismiss the MHRA claims.   Judge Frank denied the motion and found plaintiff’s letter to the MDHR requesting a dismissal did not trigger the 90 day time limitation.  Instead, Judge Frank held the 90 day time limitation started when the plaintiff received notice from the MDHR acknowledging her intent to file a lawsuit and dismissing the charge. 

The Beliveau decision erodes an employer’s ability to determine when a threat of litigation may be over (and, thus, for example, to release a litigation hold of electronically stored data).  Under the Beliveau decision, there is no way for an employer to predict with certainty when a charging party actually received notice of dismissal from the MDHR. It is not uncommon, despite the MDHR’s best efforts, for the department to issue a right to sue notice months after an individual’s request for dismissal.

Thanks to Nora Kaitfors for this submission.