On February 8, 2023, the Minnesota Supreme Court issued an opinion addressing age discrimination in the workplace. Henry v. Independent School District #625, a/k/a Saint Paul Public Schools, A21-0004 (Minn. Sup. Ct. 2023). The workplace often serves as a source of economic stability and social engagement for individuals of all ages. In that manner, adverse employment action biased by age or disability can carry consequences similar to financial exploitation and social isolation of vulnerable adults. While the Minnesota Elder Justice Center does not provide services connected with employment discrimination, the decision reflects one of our guiding principles: “Older adults and vulnerable adults provide a rich history of life experiences that should be honored and respected.”
The plaintiff, Barbara Henry, had worked for her employer for nearly 20 years before the management hierarchy for her work changed. Henry at 4. She then experienced three performance reviews in one calendar year, exclusion from a training session, and placement on a performance improvement plan (PIP) that others perceived as unwarranted. Id. at 4-7. The court quoted the plaintiff’s direct supervisor as saying:
If I look at the track record of who is—who was asked to leave or forced to leave, they are all of our older staff, you know, for whatever reason, whether it’s salary, whether it’s specifically age, all of our staff who were forced out, whether to make their lives miserable or because they were picked out, they are all of our older staff.
Id. at 7. The plaintiff retired at age 57 shortly before scheduled for consideration of terminating the plaintiff’s employment. Id. at 6.
A district court initially ruled in favor of the employer, finding that the plaintiff “voluntarily resigned her position without taking advantage” of the employer’s anti-discrimination policies. Henry at 3. After appeals from both the district decision and a subsequent Minnesota Court of Appeals decision, the Minnesota Supreme Court affirmed reversal of the initial district court decision and instructed the district court to hear the case on its merits. Id. at 33.
The state supreme court determined that the older plaintiff did not need to prove the presence of hostile work environment to have a claim. Henry at 22. The older plaintiff could prove disparate treatment based upon age. Id. at 22. To prove disparate treatment, the plaintiff needed to show that her employer took “adverse employment action.” Id. at 14. The court agreed with the plaintiff’s argument that adverse employment action included “constructive discharge,” the employer creating working conditions to force the employee to quit. Id. at 21. The court concluded that the older person presented sufficient evidence for a conclusion that the employer “took a number of deliberate steps calculated to make [the older person’s] working environment unbearable so that she would resign.” Id. at 29.
Workplace cultures where all people are treated with respect regardless of age or disability are an element of broader communities mobilized to prevent and alleviate abuse of older and vulnerable adults. Thank you to the plaintiff, Barbara Henry, and the advocates, amicus curiae, and concerned colleagues who stood with her in making her experience known and understood by the court.
By Laura Orr, Staff Attorney
Minnesota Elder Justice Center