Appeals courts reinstates Mpls. cop’s age bias suit

Scott Peterson, who joined the Minneapolis police department in 1987, said he’d heard complaints about his age during his last year on the job.

When the department transferred him from the violent offender task force to a licensing unit, he and another older police officer filed age discrimination complaints with the Minneapolis department of human resources.

It took the city more than a year to determine that the transfer was not based on Peterson’s age and did not violate the city’s respect-in-the-workplace rule. Why so long? The record doesn’t say, according to the court in today’s opinion from the Minnesota Court of Appeals.

The two officers eventually withdrew their complaints and filed age-discrimination complaints with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, but a court threw the complaint out at the behest of the city because a statute’s one-year statute of limitations had run out.

The statute reads:

The running of the one-year limitation period is suspended during the time a potential charging party and respondent are voluntarily engaged in a dispute resolution process involving a claim of unlawful discrimination under this chapter, including arbitration, conciliation, mediation or grievance procedures pursuant to a collective bargaining agreement or statutory, charter, ordinance provisions for a civil service or other employment system or a school board sexual harassment or sexual violence policy.

Today, Court of Appeals Judge Kevin Ross reinstated the lawsuit (see opinion), saying the city’s review of the officer’s complaint delayed the one-year start of the statute of limitations.

“The city’s respect-in-the-workplace complaint process, like a collective bargaining agreement, exists as a component of the voluntary employment relationship between the parties. We conclude that the policy complaint process is therefore not excluded from the tolling statute merely by virtue of its unilateral, case-specific initiation,” Ross wrote on behalf of a three-judge panel.

The city had argued that because a third party wasn’t involved in resolving the complaint, it doesn’t qualify as a “dispute resolution process” under the statute and that while it considered the complaint, the clock should have been ticking on the one-year window for filing suit under the state’s Human Rights Act.

That found no favor with the Court of Appeals.

The city relatedly argues that the policy complaint process does not qualify because the policy’s primary purpose is to eliminate harassment and discrimination in the workplace and not to determine whether any federal or state law has been violated. It maintains that this makes the process akin to a mere internal “auditing” process.

But the tolling provision is triggered by a “dispute resolution process involving a claim of unlawful discrimination under [the MHRA],” not a dispute resolution process resolving an actual
MHRA claim.

The reported violation of the city policy prohibiting age discrimination involves a claim of unlawful discrimination under the MHRA.

Whether the policy is primarily directed toward resolving MHRA claims or toward resolving policy violations that only implicitly constitute MHRA violations, a claim of age discrimination “involves” a claim concerning conduct that violates the MHRA.