Two recent decisions by the Minnesota Court of Appeals will impact Minnesota businesses facing potential discrimination claims under the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA).

In Andrea Anderson v. Aitkin Pharmacy Services, LLC, the plaintiff obtained a prescription for an emergency contraceptive that she sought to have filled at a pharmacy operated by Aitkin Pharmacy. One of the pharmacists reviewed the Food and Drug Administration label and, based on a “conscientious objection” to filling a drug used “for prevention of pregnancy,” he refused to dispense the contraceptive. The pharmacist in question, however, informed the plaintiff that another pharmacist would dispense the prescription the following day. The plaintiff instead opted to have the prescription filled at a competing pharmacy and obtained it the following day, rather than return to the Aitkin Pharmacy location.

The plaintiff brought a claim under the MHRA for sex discrimination, alleging public-accommodation and business discrimination against both Aitkin Pharmacy and the dispensing pharmacist. At trial, the jury found that the plaintiff had failed to prove she was entitled to damages, and the district court entered judgment for the defendants.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed on the claims, finding that although the pharmacist offered alternatives to plaintiff, he refused to fill the prescription for no legitimate purpose. The Court found that the intentional refusal to do business with the plaintiff constituted sex discrimination motivated by the plaintiff’s potential pregnancy, which violated the MHRA (Minn. Stat. §363A.03, subd. 42). The Court reasoned that the pharmacist’s refusal was based on the possibility that the plaintiff was pregnant or would become pregnant without the emergency contraceptive and, therefore, pregnancy was a “substantial causative” factor in his decision-making. Notably, the Court opined that the “lack of hostility to pregnancy or [plaintiff] does not alter that he was actually motivated by pregnancy when he refused to dispense” the requested prescription.

Regarding the plaintiff’s claims against Aitkin, the Court of Appeals found that the pharmacy had not discriminated against the plaintiff because the jury could have reasonably believed that Aitkin Pharmacy did not intentionally refuse to do business with the plaintiff. Instead, the evidence showed that Aitkin Pharmacy wanted to fill all valid prescriptions, that the plaintiff was advised another pharmacist would fill the prescription, and that Aitkin Pharmacy had a plan in place should a situation like this arise. The Court also determined Aitkin Pharmacy was not liable for the plaintiff’s public-accommodation claim, because she was not denied the “full and equal enjoyment of goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, and accommodations” required under the MHRA. Although Aitkin Pharmacy had a policy allowing the pharmacist to refuse the prescription, the Court found the plaintiff was given the same options as any other customer, including the option to pick up the prescription the same day she obtained it from a competitor’s pharmacy. The Court reasoned that if she had kept her prescription at Aitkin Pharmacy, the plaintiff would not have been denied the full and equal enjoyment of these services and goods and therefore Aitkin had not discriminated against her.

In JayCee Cooper v. USA Powerlifting, et al., the Minnesota Court of Appeals examined the issue of business discrimination on the basis of sex and sexual orientation. In this case, a transgender athlete was denied entry into the women’s division of a powerlifting competition and subsequently sued, alleging discrimination based on sex and sexual orientation. The district court enjoined the defendants from holding competitions in Minnesota until they provided a policy that complied with the MHRA, partially granting summary judgment in the plaintiff’s favor.

On appeal, USA Powerlifting argued that the decision to deny the plaintiff’s entry into the women’s division was made because they had gone through puberty as a male and, therefore, would have an unfair strength advantage over those who went through puberty as a female. USA Powerlifting claimed that this reasoning did not constitute sex or sexual orientation discrimination. The Minnesota Court of Appeals agreed, stating that just because the “reason for its decision is related to and intertwined with [their] transgender status does not make it a discriminatory reason.” The court drew a distinction between discriminatory decision-making and legitimate business decisions that may be interconnected with a person’s status as a protected class-member.

What does this mean for companies doing business in Minnesota?

In light of these recent interpretations of discrimination claims under the MHRA, Minnesota businesses should consider the following:

  • Ensure that all customers have equal access to your products and services and have a plan to address “conscientious objections” that may be viewed as discriminatory.
  • Continue efforts to create inclusive workplaces and businesses while seeking to identify and prevent discriminatory practices.
  • Monitor relevant decisions, including the USA Powerlifting case, which could be appealed to the Minnesota Supreme Court. While the Minnesota Court of Appeals has tried to draw a fine line between discriminatory actions and non-discriminatory business decisions “intertwined” with protected classes, businesses should be cautioned that this approach may not apply to federal discrimination claims arising under Title VII or other federal laws. Companies should always consult with experienced attorneys to address their specific concerns.
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Jonathon Duffy

Jonathon defends clients in product liability and labor and employment matters. Jonathon focuses his current practice on product liability and employment law. He defends clients against various chemical exposure allegations and is particularly experienced with mold after representing a military housing provider whose…

Jonathon defends clients in product liability and labor and employment matters. Jonathon focuses his current practice on product liability and employment law. He defends clients against various chemical exposure allegations and is particularly experienced with mold after representing a military housing provider whose properties allegedly contained the substance. His litigation experience also includes mediation relating to employee dismissal after FMLA leave. In addition, Jonathon counsels clients on federal and state employment law, helping them avoid potential litigation. He frequently advises on employee handbooks and necessary revisions after new legislation.

Matthew Beyer

Matt resolves disputes and litigation for commercial clients in the cleanest way possible. With extensive experience as a commercial and employment litigator, Matt thrives on advocating for clients. His practice includes high-stakes contractual and business disputes; defending and prosecuting employment claims for discrimination,

Matt resolves disputes and litigation for commercial clients in the cleanest way possible. With extensive experience as a commercial and employment litigator, Matt thrives on advocating for clients. His practice includes high-stakes contractual and business disputes; defending and prosecuting employment claims for discrimination, wrongful termination, and wage and hour allegations; and litigating insurance coverage disputes and bad-faith claims. Matt works with a variety of clients concentrated in the technology, manufacturing, and transportation industries, including global corporations and Fortune 500 companies.

Tina Syring

A litigator who prioritizes understanding clients’ business culture, Tina defends clients in labor and employment cases and environmental toxic tort matters. Tina’s employment practice is heavily litigation focused, and she divides her time between emergency, bet-the-company cases and investigations that often involve white…

A litigator who prioritizes understanding clients’ business culture, Tina defends clients in labor and employment cases and environmental toxic tort matters. Tina’s employment practice is heavily litigation focused, and she divides her time between emergency, bet-the-company cases and investigations that often involve white collar allegations, as well as employment litigation involving accusations of discrimination, retaliation, or harassment; wage and hour violations; and wrongful terminations. When litigation occurs, Tina also works with clients on implementing strategies to avoid similar situations in the future.

In addition to her labor and employment work, Tina has significant experience in toxic tort litigation involving major environmental exposures.