As discussed in a previous article, in Sipe v. STS Manufacturing, Inc., Civ. No. A11-2082, 2012 Minn. App. LEXIS 111, at *15 (Minn. Ct. App. Sept. 25, 2012), the Minnesota Court of Appeals held that a two-year statute of limitations applies to wrongful termination claims brought under the Minnesota Drug and Alcohol Testing in the Workplace Act (“DATWA”), section 181.953, subd. 10. The decision was then appealed to the Minnesota Supreme Court. On July 31, 2013, in an opinion authored by Justice Page, the Minnesota Supreme Court reversed the Minnesota Court of Appeals and held that such claims are subject to a six-year statute of limitations. Sipe v. STS Manufacturing, Inc., 834 N.W.2d 683 (Minn. 2013). The Sipe decision is significant because it greatly expands the time frame for an employee to bring suit against Minnesota employers for wrongful termination arising from a flawed drug test.
Terrance Sipe (“Sipe”), the appellant in Sipe v. STS Manufacturing, Inc., was required to undergo a drug test after sustaining an injury at work. When the test results came back positive, Sipe’s employment was terminated. In May of 2011, approximately three years after his termination, Sipe filed a lawsuit against his employer alleging violations of DATWA testing procedures and wrongful termination under section 181.953, subd. 10.
Minn. Stat. section 181.953, subd. 10 is one of the most significant and controversial provisions of DATWA. This section provides that the employer “may not discharge, discipline, discriminate against, or request or require rehabilitation of an employee on the basis of a positive test result from an initial screening test that has not been verified by a confirmatory retest.” Minn. Stat. § 181.953, subd. 10(a). Additionally, an employer may not discharge an employee for whom a positive test result on a confirmatory test was the first such result for the employee on a drug or alcohol test requested by the employer unless:
(1) the employer has first given the employee an opportunity to participate in, at the employee’s own expense or pursuant to coverage under an employee benefit plan, either a drug or alcohol counseling or rehabilitation program, whichever is more appropriate, as determined by the employer after consultation with a certified chemical use counselor or a physician trained in the diagnosis and treatment of chemical dependency; and
(2) the employee has either refused to participate in the counseling or rehabilitation program or has failed to successfully complete the program, as evidenced by withdrawal from the program before its completion or by a positive test result on a confirmatory test after completion of the program.
Minn. Stat. § 181.953, subd. 10(b). In the Sipe case, the employee alleged that “he was discharged as a result of a positive test in violation of subdivision 10.” Sipe, 834 N.W.2d at 685.
After the suit was commenced, Sipe’s employer brought a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that the two-year statute of limitations under Minn. Stat. § 541.07(1) barred Sipe’s claims. The district court granted the motion to dismiss and the employee appealed the case to the Minnesota Court of Appeals. As stated, the Minnesota Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s dismissal, holding that a two-year statute of limitations applied to Sipe’s wrongful termination claim under DATWA and was therefore time-barred. Because Sipe’s lawsuit was dismissed on timeliness grounds, the court did not address the merits of the underlying factual and legal claims in the case.
The Importance of Statutes of Limitations
Statutes of limitations establish strict time limits for bringing a legal claim and vary depending on the type of claim that is asserted. Failure to bring a claim within the applicable statute of limitations will ordinarily result in the dismissal of that claim regardless of the underlying merits of the claim. The statute of limitations is usually measured from the date the plaintiff’s legal claim arises or “accrues” (although in some situations it may be measured from the date the plaintiff discovers, or should have discovered, the claim).
The Legal Issue Addressed in Sipe v. STS Manufacturing, Inc.
In Sipe v. STS Manufacturing, Inc., there was no dispute regarding when Sipe’s cause of action began to accrue; the only disagreement was which statute of limitations applied to his claim. Specifically, the Minnesota Supreme Court was asked to decide whether the two-year statute of limitations under Minn. Stat. § 541.07(1), or the six-year statute of limitations under Minn. Stat. § 541.05, subd. 1(2), applies to wrongful termination claims under DATWA.
Minnesota law applies a two-year statute of limitations to “actions . . . for libel, slander, assault, battery, false imprisonment, or other tort resulting in personal injury.” Minn. Stat. § 541.07(1).
In contrast, Minnesota law applies a six-year statute of limitations to “actions . . . upon a liability created by statute, other than those arising upon a penalty or forfeiture or where a shorter period is provided by § 541.07.” Minn. Stat. § 541.05, subd. 1(2).
The Minnesota Supreme Court’s Decision
The employer in Sipe argued that Sipe’s wrongful termination claim under DATWA was an “other tort resulting in personal injury” under Minn. Stat. § 541.07(1) and therefore subject to the shorter two-year statute of limitation. Both the district court and the Minnesota Court of Appeals agreed with the employer and dismissed the case.
The Minnesota Supreme Court rejected the employer’s argument, concluding that the two-year statute of limitation established under section 541.07(1) is limited to common law causes of action not created by statute. The Court based its decision on “the fact that all of the torts specifically enumerated in section 541.07(1) – libel, slander, assault, battery, and false imprisonment – are common law torts.” Thus, the Court held that in order for a cause of action to fall within the scope of Minn. Stat. § 541.07(1), “it must originate at common law.”
According to the Court, because Sipe’s claim under Minn. Stat. 181.953, subd. 10, was created by statute and was not recognized at common law, it does not fall within section 541.07(1). As such, the Court concluded that the longer six-year statute of limitations applies to wrongful termination claims under DATWA.
The Importance of the Sipe Decision for Employees and Employers
The Sipe v. STS Manufacturing, Inc. decision means that employees will now have six years to pursue a wrongful termination claim under DATWA. This greatly increases the chance that the employee will be able to hire an attorney and bring a timely claim under the statute.
The Sipe decision is an unwelcome development for employers, because employees will now have much longer to assert a claim for wrongful termination under DATWA. In practice, the ability to wait six years to sue will not likely impact the number of individual claims because most employees who feel they are the victim of wrongful termination will hire an attorney and sue their employer well within two years. The most significant impact of the Sipe decision, in our opinion, is that it will permit plaintiffs’ employment law firms to bring multi-plaintiff or class action lawsuits against Minnesota employers alleging systematic violations of DATWA over long periods of time. If the attorney can identify even one individual plaintiff who has been wrongfully terminated under DATWA – perhaps because the employer was not familiar with Minnesota’s prohibition against terminating employees following a first positive drug test – the attorney may then be able to obtain evidence of similarly situated employees going back six years and add them to the lawsuit or bring the case as a “class action” on behalf of all such terminated employees. Thus, the Sipe decision significantly raises the stakes for Minnesota employers who conduct drug and alcohol testing in violation of DATWA.
For Minnesota employers, the best protection against a DATWA lawsuit is a well-drafted drug and alcohol testing policy that strictly complies with the statute. If your company needs assistance updating your drug and alcohol testing policy, or has been sued under DATWA, please contact any of the Trepanier MacGillis Battina P.A. employment law attorneys.
More Information About Minnesota Drug and Alcohol Testing Laws:
For a complimentary handout on Minnesota drug and alcohol testing laws, please contact Craig W. Trepanier.
For a complimentary drug and alcohol testing policy development checklist, please contact Craig W. Trepanier.
For more information about the Minnesota Drug and Alcohol Testing in the Workplace Act, read the following article on our website: Overview of the Minnesota Drug and Alcohol Testing in the Workplace Act.
About the Author:
Trepanier MacGillis Battina P.A. attorney Craig W. Trepanier has extensive experience handling workplace drug and alcohol testing matters, including drafting DOT and Non-DOT drug and alcohol testing policies and litigating claims under DATWA. Craig may be reached at 612.455.0502 or firstname.lastname@example.org.