In a published decision overturning longstanding case law, the Minnesota Court of Appeals held that claims brought by employees alleging whistleblower retaliation under the Minnesota Whistleblower Statute, Minn. Stat. § 181.932, are subject to a six-year statute of limitations rather than a two year limitations period. The decision, Ford v. Minneapolis Public Schools, — N.W.2d —- (Dec. 15, 2014), is the second recent decision issued by Minnesota appellate courts confirming that wrongful discharge claims created by a state statute may be brought within six rather than two years of discharge.
Facts of the Case
The plaintiff in the case, Yvette Ford, worked for the Minneapolis Public Schools. In her lawsuit, Ms. Ford alleged that during the summer of 2007, she reported financial improprieties and budget discrepancies to the school-district superintendent and another staff person. Then, the following April, Ms. Ford was notified that her position would be eliminated effective June 30, 2008. She subsequently brought her lawsuit on June 29, 2010—exactly two years after the termination of her employment—alleging she was terminated in retaliation for engaging in whistleblowing rather than for legitimate, business-related reasons.
The trial court in Ford originally dismissed the lawsuit, finding that Ms. Ford was required to bring it within two years of the date she was first notified that her position was being eliminated in April 2008, rather than within two years of the date of her termination at the end of June 2008. Interestingly, both the plaintiff and the defendant-employer agreed the two-year limitations period applied to Ms. Ford’s claim, in light of a 1995 Court of Appeals decision holding to that effect, Larson v. New Richland Care Ctr., 538 N.W.2d 915 (Minn. Ct. App. 1995).
On appeal, the Minnesota Court of Appeals initially agreed with the trial court that Ms. Ford’s lawsuit was correctly dismissed as untimely. Ms. Ford appealed again, this time to the Minnesota Supreme Court. Notably, Ms. Ford did not challenge either of the lower courts’ applications of the two-year limitations period. Although the Minnesota Supreme Court denied review on all issues raised in the appeal, including the decision to measure the limitations period from the date Ms. Ford received notice of her impending termination rather than the date of her actual termination, the Minnesota Supreme Court nonetheless remanded the case back to the Court of Appeals “solely for the purpose of reconsideration of the statute of limitations that applies to [Ms. Ford’s] claim in light of Sipe v. STS Mfg., Inc., 834 N.W.2d 683 (Minn. 2013).”
Sipe was the first in this new line of cases from the Minnesota appellate courts lengthening the limitations period for statutorily-created wrongful discharge claims. In Sipe, the Minnesota Supreme Court applied the six-year limitations period to wrongful discharge claims brought under the Minnesota Drug and Alcohol Testing in the Workplace Act, Minn. Stat. §§ 181.950, et seq.
On remand in Ford, the Minnesota Court of Appeals took the hint and held that the six-year statute of limitations period applied to Ms. Ford’s whistleblower claim. Accordingly, the court reversed the district court’s decision dismissing Ms. Ford’s lawsuit as untimely.
The Ford case has two primary takeaways:
- First, Minnesota courts must now apply a six-year rather than two-year statute of limitations to wrongful discharge claims created by state statute, including claims arising under the Minnesota Whistleblower Statute, Minn. Stat. § 181.932, and claims arising under the Minnesota Drug and Alcohol Testing in the Workplace Act, Minn. Stat. §§ 181.950, et seq., in the absence of statutory language providing for a shorter limitations period.
- Second, the limitations period for wrongful discharge claims arising under Minnesota law should be measured from the date an employee receives notice of his or her impending termination, rather than the actual date of termination.