1. What legal protection does Minnesota provide private sector employees in regard to whistleblowing and retaliation?
The general rule is that most employees may be fired at any time for any reason or for no reason at all under what is known as the at-will employment doctrine. However, in the past half-century, many exceptions to the general rule have emerged. Exceptions to this general rule can come from two sources: (1) courts, which modify and make "common law protections" or (2) the legislature, which enacts "statutory protections." Statutory protections tend to be specific, addressing certain subject areas (such as discrimination, workers' compensation, etc.). Yet, legislators often lack the foresight to address every possible situation of retaliation. Common law protections, on the other hand, tend to "fill the gaps" where no statute exists for a given situation.
Common Law Protections
Minnesota recognizes a public policy exception to the at-will employment doctrine. An employer may not discharge an employee for a reason that contravenes a clear mandate of public policy. An employee has a cause of action in other words, the employee may sue for wrongful discharge when the motivation for the discharge violates public policy. The public policy exception has been used in limited circumstances, with its protection extending to employees who refuse to commit a criminal act. Phipps v. Clark Oil & Refining Corp., 408 N.W.2d 569, (Minn. 1987).
However, the Minnesota Legislature has adopted statutory protections for certain activities. Notably, Minnesota has a general whistleblower protection statute that prohibits retaliation against whistleblowers. Also, several other Minnesota statutes contain anti-retaliation provisions. Employees who engage in protected activities (usually filing a complaint or testifying) under laws in the following subject areas are protected from retaliation: discrimination, labor relations, minimum wage, occupational safety and health, vulnerable adults, wage discrimination (equal pay for equal work), and workers' compensation.
In addition to the above state protections, federal law provides workers with additional protections. Furthermore, a private contract or collective bargaining agreement may also protect employees from certain forms of retaliation.
2. What activities does state law protect, and to whom does this protection apply?
Common Law Protections
An employee may not be discharged for a reason that is contrary to the public policy of the state of Minnesota. Specifically, an employee may not be discharged in retaliation for refusing to commit a criminal act. The bulk of Minnesota's protections for workers are found in the state's statutory protections (see below).
General Whistleblower Protection: An employee may not be discharged (or discriminated against) in retaliation for the following activities:
- Reporting a suspected violation or a planned violation of any federal or state law or the common law (i.e. whistleblowing). This disclosure may be made to an employer, a governmental body, or a law enforcement official. The disclosure must be made in good faith.
- Being requested by a public body to participate in an investigation, hearing, or inquiry.
- Refusing to perform an action that the employee believes violates a state or federal law. The employee's belief must be objectively reasonable. Also, an employee must inform her employer that she is refusing because she does not want to violate the law not for any other reason.
- Reporting situations in which the quality of health care services provided by a health care facility, organization, or health care provider violates the proper standard of care (as established by federal or state law, or a professional standard) and places the public at risk of harm. The disclosure must be made in good faith.
- A public employee communicates findings of a study to a governmental body or law enforcement official.
- An employee in the classified service of state government communicates information relating to state services to a legislator or constitutional officer.
This protection does not extend to instances where an employee discloses information that the employee knows to be false or that shows reckless disregard for the truth. Minn. Stat. § 181.932.
Discrimination: An employee may not retaliated against for opposing a practice that is prohibited under the Minnesota Human Rights Act. Nor may an employee be retaliated against for filing a charge, testifying, assisting, or participating in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing under the Human Rights Act. Minn. Stat. § 363A.15.
Labor Relations Act: An employee may not be discharged (or discriminated against) in retaliation for filing an affidavit, petition, or complaint or given information/testimony under the Minnesota Labor Relations Act. Minn. Stat. § 179.12(4).
Minimum Wage: An employee may not be discharged (or discriminated against) in retaliation for filing a complaint, instituting a proceeding, or testifying in a proceeding concerning violations of Minnesota's minimum wage laws. An employer may be fined up to $3,000 per violation. Minn. Stat. § 177.32.
Occupational Safety and Health: An employee may not be discharged (or discriminated against) in retaliation for filing a complaint, instituting a proceeding or inspection, testifying in a proceeding, or exercising a right concerning violations of occupational safety and health standards. Also, an employee may not be discharged (or discriminated against) in retaliation for refusing to perform a task that presents an imminent danger of death or serious physical harm.
Vulnerable Adults: An employee may not be retaliated against for reporting suspected mistreatment of adults who, because of physical or mental disability or dependency on institutional services, are particularly vulnerable to maltreatment. Minn. Stat. § 626.557.
Wage Discrimination (Equal Pay For Equal Work): An employee may not be discharged (or discriminated against) in retaliation for filing a complaint, or testifying in an investigation/proceeding under Minnesota's Equal Pay for Equal Work Law. Under that law, an employer may not discriminate on the basis of sex in the payment of wages. Minn. Stat. § 181.67.
Workers' Compensation: An employee may not be discharged in retaliation for filing a workers' compensation claim. Punitive damages may be assessed to an employer for a violation of this statute. Minn. Stat. § 176.82.
3. How do I file a whistleblower or retaliation claim in Minnesota?
Generally: An employee may file a lawsuit in an appropriate court. The lawsuit must be filed within the period specified by the statute of limitations. The statute of limitations for most wrongful termination claims is 2 years. However, if a statute provides a different statute of limitations period, the statute controls. If you believe you have a claim, you should contact a lawyer.
General Whistleblower Protection: An employee may file a lawsuit in an appropriate court. The lawsuit must be filed within 2 years of the retaliatory action. If you believe you have a claim, you should contact a lawyer.
Occupational Safety and Health: An employee may file a complaint with the Minnesota Department of Labor & Industry (DLI). The lawsuit must be filed within 30 days of the retaliatory action. DLI will investigate and may schedule a hearing before an administrative law judge. DLI has several offices in Minnesota. Contact information for individual offices is available on their web site. If you believe you have a claim, you should contact DLI immediately.
Alternatively, an employee may file a private lawsuit in an appropriate court. The lawsuit must be filed within 2 years of the retaliatory action. If you elect to file a lawsuit, you should contact a lawyer.
Discrimination: An employee may file a complaint with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights. The lawsuit must be filed within 1 year of the retaliatory action. The complaint must state the name of the person alleged to have committed the retaliatory action, and summarize the details of the incident. If the Department refuses to pursue your claim and sends you a dismissal notice, an employee may file a lawsuit. The lawsuit must be filed within 45 days of receiving the Department's dismissal notice. If you believe you have a claim, you should contact the Department of Human Rights immediately.
Minnesota Department of Human Rights
190 E. 5th Street, Suite 700
St. Paul, MN 55101
Workers' Compensation: An employee may file a lawsuit in an appropriate court. The lawsuit must be filed within 6 years of the retaliatory action. If you believe you have a claim, you should contact a lawyer.