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Lewis v. CNA Nat'l Warranty Corp.

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

October 24, 2014

Pamela K. Lewis, Plaintiff,
v.
CNA National Warranty Corporation, Defendant

Page 960

For Pamela K Lewis, Plaintiff: Michael J Minenko, LEAD ATTORNEY, Minenko & Hoff, P.A, Edina, MN.

For CNA National Warranty Corporation, Defendant: Marko J Mrkonich, LEAD ATTORNEY, Kristine D Yen, Littler Mendelson, PC, Mpls, MN; William E Parker, LEAD ATTORNEY, Littler Mendelson P.C., Minneapolis, MN.

Page 961

ORDER

JOAN N. ERICKSEN, United States District Judge.

This is an employment discrimination action. Plaintiff Pamela Lewis alleges that she was discharged by her former employer, Defendant CNA National Warranty Corporation (" CNAN" ), because of her sex, age, and disability in violation of the Minnesota Human Rights Act.

CNAN describes itself as a company that " distributes vehicle service contracts and related products through franchised new car automotive dealers nationwide." CNAN employs Regional Vice Presidents (" RVPs" ) of Sales to work both with the independent agents who sell its products to auto dealerships and with the dealerships themselves. CNAN hired Lewis as an RVP of Sales in December of 2005 and discharged her in November of 2012, when she was 42 years old.

The case is currently before the Court on CNAN's Motion for Summary Judgment. For the reasons discussed below, the motion is denied with respect to Lewis' sex and age discrimination claims and granted with respect to her disability discrimination claim.

Discussion

The Minnesota Human Rights Act (" MHRA" ) makes it " an unfair employment practice" for an employer, " [e]xcept when based on a bona fide occupational qualification," to " discharge" an employee " because of" her sex, age, or disability. Minn. Stat. § 363A.08, subd. 2.

Discriminatory discharge " may be established under either a disparate impact or disparate treatment theory." Goins v. West Group, 635 N.W.2d 717, 722 (Minn. 2001). Lewis alleges disparate treatment. Accordingly, " proof of discriminatory motive is critical," as CNAN's " liability 'depends on whether the protected trait . . . actually motivated [its] decision" to discharge Lewis. Id. (quoting Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 141, 120 S.Ct. 2097, 147 L.Ed.2d 105 (2000)).

Lewis may satisfy her burden of establishing that a trait protected by the MHRA " actually played a role" in CNAN's

Page 962

decisionmaking process, id. (quoting Reeves, 530 U.S. at 141), either with " direct evidence of discriminatory animus" or through " the three part burden-shifting framework set forth by the Supreme Court in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 93 S.Ct. 1817, 36 L.Ed.2d 668 (1973)," Hansen v. Robert Half Intern., Inc., 813 N.W.2d 906, 918 (Minn. 2012).

With its motion, CNAN argues that Lewis cannot meet her burden through either approach with respect to any of her three claims. To be entitled to summary judgment, CNAN bears its own burden of " show[ing] that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and [that it] is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). In this posture, the evidence, and all reasonable inferences from it, are viewed in the light most favorable to Lewis as the nonmoving party. E.g., Davis v. Jefferson Hosp. Ass'n, 685 F.3d 675, 680 (8th Cir. 2012).

Lewis' three claims are discussed below.

I. Sex and age discrimination.

In her memorandum opposing CNAN's motion and at the motion hearing, Lewis focused on her sex discrimination claim and did not offer a separate argument in support of her age discrimination claim. At the same time, Lewis asserted that her age discrimination claim is " perhaps more accurately [a] sex-plus-age discrimination claim."

As Lewis points out, the Eighth Circuit recently decided that such a claim is " likely cognizable under the MHRA" :

" 'Sex-plus' discrimination occurs when employees are classified on the basis of sex plus one other seemingly neutral characteristic." Knott v. Mo. P. R. Co., 527 F.2d 1249, 1251 (8th Cir. 1975). [Plaintiff] claims the [defendant] discriminated against her as an older woman. Although the Minnesota Supreme Court has not had occasion to recognize a claim for sex-plus-age discrimination under the MHRA, the Minnesota Court of Appeals has done so. See Pullar v. Indep. Sch. Dist. No. 701, 582 N.W.2d 273, 277 (Minn.Ct.App.1998) (citing Phillips v. Martin Marietta Corp., 400 U.S. 542, 91 S.Ct. 496, 27 L.Ed.2d 613 (1971) (per curiam)). The [defendant] seeks to distinguish Pullar on the grounds that it dealt with a " sex-plus" discrimination claim where the additional characteristic, familial status, was not otherwise protected under the MHRA. However, we agree with the district court that a claim of sex-plus-age discrimination is likely cognizable under the MHRA. After all, as the district court noted, age is one way an employer could discriminate against some members of one sex but not the other. Moreover, [plaintiff] contends her sex and her age both played a role in the [the defendant's] decisions, and " [t]hese characteristics do not exist in isolation." Shazor, 744 F.3d at 958. " To be actionable, however, 'sex-plus' discrimination claims must be premised on gender. 'Sex-plus' plaintiffs can never be successful unless there is a corresponding sub-class of members of the opposite gender." Pullar, 582 N.W.2d at 277 (citing Coleman v. B--G Maint. Mgmt., 108 F.3d 1199, 1203 (10th Cir. 1997)). Here, [plaintiff's] " corresponding sub-class" is comprised of older men.

Doucette v. Morrison County, Minn., 763 F.3d 978, 987 (8th Cir. 2014).

Accordingly, the Court will consider Lewis' claims that she was discharged because of her sex and her age together here.

Page 963

A. Direct evidence.

CNAN first argues that Lewis has no direct evidence that the decision to discharge her was motivated by discriminatory animus based on ...


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