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Minnesota Department of Human Rights Files Amicus Brief Urging Minnesota Supreme Court to Protect Minnesotans in Hostile Environments and Include Unpaid Interns under the Minnesota Human Rights Act

[St. Paul, MN] — The Minnesota Department of Human Rights (MDHR), represented by Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, filed an amicus brief in Meagan Abel vs. Abbot Northwestern Hospital and St. Mary’s University Minnesota.

The case asks whether courts reviewing harassment cases under the Minnesota Human Rights Act (Act) must take into account the total series of actions that create a hostile environment, including discrimination that took place outside the one-year statute of limitations, and also whether unpaid interns are protected by the Act. MDHR is urging the Minnesota Supreme Court to reverse a flawed lower court ruling and ensure that unpaid interns are protected under the Act.

“Every Minnesotan deserves to live free from discrimination,” said Minnesota Department of Human Rights Commissioner Rebecca Lucero. “That’s why we filed this amicus brief because too many Minnesotans continue to face discrimination, hate, and harassment in their communities. The Minnesota Supreme Court must clarify that the law provides protections so all Minnesotans can live full lives without fear of being discriminated against.”

In this case, Meagan Abel, a St. Mary’s University doctoral student, began her unpaid practicum at Abbot Northwestern Hospital’s clinical psychology program in September 2015. During the program, Abel alleges her supervisor repeatedly sexually and racially harassed her. When Abel reported the harassment multiple times, both the hospital and St. Mary’s University failed to act and protect Abel. Their inaction contributed to a hostile environment. In May 2016, Abel decided to end her practicum early.

Less than one year later in May 2017, Abel filed a charge of discrimination with MDHR. The Fourth Judicial District Court of Hennepin County and the Minnesota Court of Appeals denied Abel’s claim, alleging the supervisor’s harassment and inaction by the hospital and university that Abel experienced in 2015 and early 2016 took place outside of the one-year statute of limitations and thus could not be considered. The District Court also ruled that Abel was not an employee or student during her practicum and was not be protected under the Minnesota Human Rights Act’s employment or education protections.

In the brief, MDHR argues that it is crucial for the law to recognize that hostile environment claims are comprised of a series of individual discriminatory events. While individuals have a year to submit a charge of discrimination, MDHR highlights that the law permits a court to take into account discriminatory actions, including inaction by an employer, that took place outside the one-year limitation period that contributed to the hostile environment. The brief also states that the clock for the statute of limitations period for hostile environments must begin on the employee’s last day of work or when an employee resigns.

In addition, MDHR also argues that the Minnesota Supreme Court should interpret the law to ensure that individuals in unpaid internships and students performing unpaid work as a requirement of their education are protected under the Minnesota Human Rights Act. MDHR highlights that the Act already protects Minnesotans in the areas of employment and education and should extend to interns and student workers.

If you believe you have been discriminated against in violation of the Minnesota Human Rights Act, please contact MDHR at 651.539.1133, 1.800.657.3704, or email info.mdhr@state.mn.us. For more information, please visit mn.gov/mdhr or follow the conversation on Twitter at @mnhumanrights.

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Document: Amicus Brief for Meagan Abel vs. Abbot Northwestern Hospital and St. Mary’s University Minnesota

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