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LaPoint v. Family Orthodontics, P.A.

Supreme Court of Minnesota

April 5, 2017

Nicole LaPoint, Respondent,
v.
Family Orthodontics, P.A., Appellant.

         Court of Appeals Office of Appellate Courts.

          Steven A. Smith, Nichols Kaster, PLLP, Minneapolis, Minnesota, for respondent.

          Marshall H. Tanick, Teresa J. Ayling, Hellmuth & Johnson, PLLC, Edina, Minnesota, for appellant.

          Lori Swanson, Attorney General, Margaret Jacot, Assistant Attorney General, Saint Paul, Minnesota, for amicus curiae Commissioner of the Department of Human Rights.

          Douglas A. Micko, Marisa C. Katz, Brian Rochel, Teske Micko Katz Kitzer & Rochel, PLLP, Minneapolis, Minnesota; and

          Frances E. Baillon, Baillon Thome Jozwiak & Wanta, LLP, Minneapolis, Minnesota, for amicus curiae National Employment Lawyers Association-Minnesota Chapter.

          Leslie L. Lienemann, Culberth & Lienemann, LLP, Saint Paul, Minnesota; and

          Justin D. Cummins, Cummins & Cummins, LLP, Minneapolis Minnesota, for amicus curiae Employee Lawyers Association of the Upper Midwest.

          Jill R. Gaulding, Lisa C. Stratton, Christy L. Hall, Saint Paul, Minnesota, for amicus curiae Gender Justice.

          Margaret R. Ryan, Jacalyn N. Chinander, Meagher & Geer, PLLP, Minneapolis, Minnesota; and

          William J. Davidson, Lind, Jensen, Sullivan & Peterson, PA, Minneapolis, Minnesota, for amicus curiae Minnesota Defense Lawyers Association.

         SYLLABUS

         1. A plaintiff asserting a pregnancy discrimination claim under the Minnesota Human Rights Act under a disparate-treatment theory proves her claim if she shows that pregnancy "actually motivated" the challenged decision.

         2. When the appellate court is unable to determine whether the district court, if it applied the correct law, would make the same findings of fact, a remand is appropriate.

         Reversed and remanded.

          OPINION

          GILDEA, C.J.

         The question presented in this case is whether appellant, Family Orthodontics, P.A., discriminated against respondent Nicole LaPoint. LaPoint applied for a job with Family Orthodontics and Family Orthodontics' owner, Dr. Angela Ross, offered LaPoint a job as an orthodontic assistant. After LaPoint told Dr. Ross that she was pregnant, and they discussed the amount of leave available for LaPoint's pregnancy, Family Orthodontics rescinded its job offer. LaPoint sued Family Orthodontics for sex discrimination under the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA), Minn. Stat. § 363A.01-.44 (2016), claiming that Family Orthodontics discriminated against her because of her pregnancy. After a bench trial, the district court entered judgment for Family Orthodontics, concluding that Dr. Ross's decision was not discriminatory. The court of appeals reversed, ruling as a matter of law that Family Orthodontics had discriminated against LaPoint. Because we conclude that the district court's findings are not clearly erroneous but that faulty legal reasoning may have impacted the findings, we reverse and remand.

         This action arises from LaPoint's application to work as an orthodontic assistant at Family Orthodontics. Family Orthodontics is a small orthodontics clinic that Dr. Angela Ross owns and operates. In early 2013, Family Orthodontics had a job opening for an orthodontic assistant. LaPoint is an experienced orthodontic assistant and an employee at the clinic recommended LaPoint for the position. Dr. Ross reached out to LaPoint and asked her to interview. Dr. Ross interviewed LaPoint on the evening of Friday, March 22, 2013. The parties agree that the interview went well. LaPoint requested pay of $25-$27 per hour and two weeks of vacation time. Dr. Ross did not ask LaPoint whether she was pregnant, and the topic of pregnancy did not come up.

         Dr. Ross then left for a family vacation out of state. On Sunday, March 24, two days after the interview, Dr. Ross left LaPoint a voicemail offering her the job. Later that day, LaPoint called Dr. Ross and accepted the offer. During that conversation, LaPoint told Dr. Ross that she was pregnant and due in October.

         Dr. Ross congratulated LaPoint and said that she was happy for her. Dr. Ross asked LaPoint if she intended to return to work after giving birth; LaPoint said that she did. Dr. Ross asked her how much maternity leave she had taken after the birth of her first child, and LaPoint said that she had taken 12 weeks. Dr. Ross inferred that LaPoint would want 12 weeks of leave for her upcoming birth, and told LaPoint that Family Orthodontics had a policy of allowing no more than 6 weeks of maternity leave. LaPoint responded that she might be willing to take a shorter leave, and said that she would consider 10 weeks.

         On March 25, the morning after LaPoint called to accept the job, Dr. Ross left a voicemail for LaPoint. In the voicemail, Dr. Ross stated that she "did not sleep very well" the night before, and that she was "not going to offer [LaPoint] the job just yet" because she needed "a couple more days to figure this out." Dr. Ross also said:

Frankly, two things really kept me from sleeping well. One of them is why you didn't tell me on Friday that you were pregnant, I'm just I just can't figure that piece out . . . . And the other thing is that I have to make sure that after training you for six months, that you going on leave for three months is not going to disrupt the practice.

         Dr. Ross said that she was going to put the job offer "on hold." She invited LaPoint to contact her if she had "some answers to those two concern[s]."

         Later that same morning, Family Orthodontics reposted an ad on Craigslist for the orthodontic assistant position. Dr. Ross later testified that she posted the ad in order to seek additional candidates in the event that LaPoint was not hired.

         LaPoint responded by e-mail to Dr. Ross's voicemail, explaining that she had not told Dr. Ross about the pregnancy at the interview because it was still in an early stage, and she had not even told her family yet. LaPoint wrote that she had disclosed the pregnancy after accepting the offer as "the action of a loyal employee who has the office's best interest at heart." She assured Dr. Ross that she planned to return to work after the birth. LaPoint did not discuss the length of the leave in this e-mail.

         The next day, Dr. Ross sent an e-mail to LaPoint. She wrote: "I think there was somewhat of a misunderstanding. The reason why I withdrew the job offer yesterday (Monday) morning was because I had two concerns." First, Dr. Ross said that she was "confused" about why LaPoint told her about the pregnancy after the job offer "but did not say anything during [their] face to face interview" on Friday. Second, she stated that employees at Family Orthodontics "typically take off 6 weeks" for maternity leave, and she was not sure that "a small practice" like hers could handle LaPoint's "requested 12 weeks off." Dr. Ross thanked LaPoint for her email and wrote that she would "be in touch" when she returned from vacation. The following day, LaPoint sent Dr. Ross a short email stating that she "look[ed] forward to speaking with [Dr. Ross] on the telephone upon [her] return from vacation to clarify the two points."

         Dr. Ross did not call or send another e-mail to LaPoint. She testified that she was very busy after vacation, and that hiring "wasn't on [her] radar." LaPoint did not contact Dr. Ross again because she believed that "the ball was in [Dr. Ross's] court." In May, Dr. Ross eventually filled the orthodontic assistant position, hiring a recent graduate who had previously interned at Family Orthodontics. The new hire was not pregnant.

         In the course of the communications described above, Dr. Ross made a number of notations on a copy of LaPoint's resume. Around the time LaPoint told Dr. Ross that she was pregnant, Dr. Ross wrote "Pregnant?!" and "Due 10/13!" on the resume. After she left the voicemail indicating that the job offer was "on hold, " Dr. Ross wrote: "I L/M rescinding (rescinding) offer & told her needed a few more days. 2 concerns: (1) why didn't she ...


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