The Minnesota Human Rights Act Protects Younger Workers From Age Discrimination
By: RICHARD A. ROSS
The Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA) prohibits employers from discriminating against employees based on age. The protected class includes any person "over the age of majority." Thus, unlike the Federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), which only protects employees age 40 or older, the MHRA protects individuals age 18 or older.
The United States Supreme Court recently ruled in General Dynamics Land Systems, Inc. v. Cline that the ADEA protects older employees and does not prohibit employers from granting greater benefits to older employees than to younger employees. While the Minnesota Supreme Court has yet to rule on the whether the MHRA should be interpreted similarly, a July 2005 U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals decision held that the MHRA protects younger workers who are treated less favorably than older workers.
In Ace Electrical Contractors v. IBEW, Local 292, the Eighth Circuit held that the clearly defined public policy in the MHRA protects younger employees. In Ace, the employer and union's collective bargaining agreement required that one of every five electrical employees hired be at least 50 years of age. The collective bargaining agreement required that layoffs in a reduction-in-force conform to the same age ratio.
When the employer laid off two employees over age 50 in a planned reduction-in-force, the union filed a grievance, claiming that the employer violated the collective bargaining agreement. The employer rejected the grievance on the grounds that the agreement violated the MHRA. During the grievance process, an opinion solicited from the Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Human Rights stated that the collective bargaining agreement's age ratio violated the MHRA.
The grievance ultimately went to binding arbitration, which resulted in an award in favor of the union, requiring the employer to reinstate both employees with full back pay. The employer thereafter asked the local District Court to vacate the arbitration award on the grounds that it violated clear public policy against age discrimination in the MHRA. The District Court eventually vacated the arbitration award and agreed that the provision favoring older workers violated the MHRA.
The union appealed the decision to the Eighth Circuit, which, in a detailed analysis, compared the MHRA to the ADEA in light of the U.S. Supreme Court's earlier decision in Cline. The Eighth Circuit held that the clear intent of the ADEA was to protect "older" workers but the "plain text" of the MHRA requires that workers age 18 or older be treated similarly. The result is that under the MHRA younger workers cannot be treated differently from older workers because of their age.
While the Minnesota state courts have not specifically ruled on this issue, given the clear language in the statute and the position of the Department of Human Rights, it is highly likely that the state courts will agree with the Eighth Circuit and hold that younger employees are protected against age discrimination that favors older employees.