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Trepanier MacGillis Battina P.A. 8000 Flour Exchange Building 310 Fourth Avenue South Minneapolis, MN 55415 612.455.0500

Defamation Claims Not Preempted by the MHRA

The Minnesota Human Rights Act (“MHRA”) contains a provision making its procedures the exclusive remedy for violations giving rise to liability under the statute. In Walker v. Wanner Engineering, Inc., 867 F. Supp. 2d 1050 (D. Minn. 2012), an employer argued that a former employee’s defamation claim was preempted by the MHRA exclusivity provision. The court disagreed, ruling that defamation claims are not preempted by the MHRA.

MHRA Exclusivity Provision
The MHRA exclusivity provision provides that:

The provisions of [the MHRA] shall be construed liberally for the accomplishment of the purposes thereof. Nothing contained in [the MHRA] shall be deemed to repeal any of the provisions of the civil rights law or of any other law of this state relating to discrimination because of race, creed, color, religion, sex, age, disability, marital status, status with regard to public assistance, national origin, sexual orientation, or familial status; but, as to acts declared unfair by sections 363A.08 to 363A.19, and 363A.28, subdivision 10, the procedure herein provided shall, while pending, be exclusive.

Minn. Stat. § 363A.04.

An Overview of the Walker Decision
In Walker, the plaintiff alleged claims of defamation and racial discrimination stemming from being fired from his employment with the defendant. The defendant employer claimed that the plaintiff was fired for stealing scrap metal from defendant’s facilities. The defendant moved for summary judgment on the defamation claim, arguing, among other things, that the defamation claim was preempted by the MHRA’s exclusivity provision.
In determining whether plaintiff’s defamation claim was preempted by the MHRA, the court examined the elements of each claim. “[T]he elements of defamation are a false statement communicated by defendant to a third party that tends to harm the plaintiff’s reputation or lower his esteem in the community.” Walker, 867 F. Supp. 2d at 1057. An MHRA unfair employment practice claim “requires showing that because of the plaintiff’s race an employer ‘discriminat[ed] against . . .[that] person . . . with respect to hiring, apprenticeship, tenure, compensation, terms, upgrading, conditions, facilities, or privileges of employment.'” Id. at 1058 (citing Minn. Stat. § 363A.08, subd. 2).

The court ruled that plaintiff’s defamation claim was not preempted by the MHRA because the factual basis for a defamation claim would not necessarily support a race discrimination claim under the MHRA. Walker, 867 F. Supp. 2d at 1058 (“The MHRA does not require a false statement of any kind, and a defamatory statement may be defamatory regardless of the plaintiff’s race or whether the defendant’s actions were motivated by race.”). Further, the court observed that the obligations defendant owed to the plaintiff regarding defamation and employment discrimination were different. Id. (“Further, an employer’s duty not to defame its employees is distinct from its duty not to create a hostile work environment or discriminate on the basis of race.”). Based on the above reasoning, the court denied defendant’s motion for summary judgment.

MHRA May Preempt Claims Other Than Defamation
While the Walker court stated that a claim of defamation was not preempted by the MHRA, other common law claims may be preempted. In Callicut v. Pepsi Bottling Group, for example, the court held that the plaintiff’s claims of intentional infliction of emotional distress, invasion of privacy, and negligence were preempted by the MHRA. Callicut v. Pepsi Bottling Group, 2002 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 8894 at *39-40 (D. Minn. May 13, 2002) (unpublished) (“Plaintiffs rely upon the same incidents of racial harassment for their common law claims as for their MHRA claims. Although the elements for Plaintiffs’ common law claims vary, the Court finds that the same incidents of racial harassment in the workplace would serve to support both the common law claims and the MHRA claims. Accordingly, the current Plaintiffs’ common law claims, as pleaded, are preempted by their corresponding statutory claims.”).

Similarly, in Radcliffe v. Securian Financial Group, Inc., the court held that plaintiff’s claims of negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress were preempted. Radcliffe v. Securian Financial Group, Inc., Civ. No. 11-CV-3701 (SRN/TNL), 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 155232 at *46 (D. Minn. Oct. 30, 2012) (unpublished) (“Radcliffe’s resulting ‘personal, emotional, and economic injuries’ are related to Defendant’s duty to protect Plaintiff from harassment, discrimination, and retaliation in the workplace and fall within the MHRA’s protections.”).

In wrongful termination lawsuits, employees often bring claims for violating the Minnesota Human Rights Act along with other related common law claims. If your company has been sued under the MHRA, you should work closely with your legal counsel to analyze whether the MHRA’s exclusive remedy provision might bar some of these other claims. If your organization has been sued under the MHRA by a former employee, and you need representation in court, please contact one of the employment law attorneys at Trepanier MacGillis Battina P.A.