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Peterson v. City of Minneapolis

Supreme Court of Minnesota

April 12, 2017

Scott Peterson, Respondent,
v.
City of Minneapolis, Minnesota, Appellant. Roger Smith, Plaintiff,

         Court of Appeals Office of Appellate Courts

          Erik F. Hansen, Elizabeth E. Cadem, Burns & Hansen, P.A., Minneapolis, Minnesota, for respondent.

          Susan L. Segal, Minneapolis City Attorney, Timothy S. Skarda, Michael B. Bloom, Andrea K. Naef, Assistant City Attorneys, Minneapolis, Minnesota, for appellant.

          Susan L. Naughton, Saint Paul, Minnesota, for amici curiae League of Minnesota Cities and Association of Minnesota Counties.

          Robert Small, Minnesota County Attorneys Association, Saint Paul, Minnesota; and Michael O. Freeman, Hennepin County Attorney, Beverly J. Wolfe, Assistant County Attorney, Martin D. Munic, Senior Assistant County Attorney, Minneapolis, Minnesota, for amicus curiae Minnesota County Attorneys Association.

          Dyan J. Ebert, Melinda M. Sanders, Julie L. Fisk, Quinlivan & Hughes, P.A., Saint Cloud, Minnesota; and

          Jessica L. Roe, Shannon Cooper, Roe Law Group, Minneapolis, Minnesota, for amicus curiae Minnesota Defense Lawyers Association.

          Stephen C. Fiebiger, Stephen C. Fiebiger Law Office, Chtd., Burnsville, Minnesota; and Frances E. Baillon, Baillon Thome Jozwaik & Wanta, LLP, Minneapolis, Minnesota; and

          Brian Rochel, Doug Micko, Teske, Micko, Kitzer & Rochel, PLLP, Minneapolis, Minnesota, for amicus curiae Minnesota Chapter of the National Employment Lawyers Association.

         SYLLABUS

         The parties were "voluntarily engaged in a dispute resolution process involving a claim of unlawful discrimination" under the Minnesota Human Rights Act, Minn. Stat. §§ 363A.01-.44 (2016), that suspended the statute of limitations for the employee's age discrimination claim, Minn. Stat. § 363A.28, subd. 3(b).

          OPINION

          GILDEA, Chief Justice.

         The question presented in this case is whether an employee's complaint to his employer's human resources department suspended the running of the statute of limitations for the employee's age discrimination claim under the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA), Minn. Stat. §§ 363A.01-.44 (2016). The district court concluded that the employer's investigation did not suspend the statute of limitations. The court of appeals reversed, holding that the parties were "voluntarily engaged in a dispute resolution process involving a claim of unlawful discrimination" under the MHRA that suspended the statute of limitations. Because we likewise conclude that the parties' participation in the employer's process suspended the statute of limitations, we affirm.

         FACTS

         Respondent Scott Peterson[1] worked as a police officer for appellant City of Minneapolis from 1987 to 2012. In October 2011, the City transferred Peterson from his position with the Violent Offender Task Force to another police unit. At the time of the transfer, Peterson was 54 years old. Peterson argues that he was transferred because of his age. In November 2011, Peterson filed a complaint with the City's human resources department under the City's Respect in the Workplace Policy (Workplace Policy), claiming that the transfer was because of age discrimination. The City's human resources department investigated the claim. In January 2013, more than a year after Peterson's initial complaint, the City concluded that the transfer was not the result of age discrimination.

         On June 26, 2013, Peterson filed a claim with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, which he later withdrew. See Minn. Stat. § 363A.28, subd. 3(a) (authorizing a complainant to bring a complaint as a civil action, as a charge with a local commission, or as a charge with the Commissioner of the Department of Human Rights). And on March 12, 2014, Peterson commenced this action against the City of Minneapolis in Hennepin County District Court, alleging that the City discriminated against him based on his age in violation of the MHRA.

         The City moved for partial summary judgment, arguing that Peterson's MHRA claim was not timely filed. The district court granted the City's motion for partial summary judgment, holding that Peterson's claim was not filed within the one-year limitations period in Minn. Stat. § 363A.28, subd. 3.

         The court of appeals reversed. Peterson v. City of Minneapolis, 878 N.W.2d 521, 522 (Minn.App. 2016). The court of appeals concluded that the parties were engaged in a "dispute resolution process" during the period of time in which the City's human resources department was investigating Peterson's claim, which suspended the statute of limitations under Minn. Stat. § 363A.28, subd. 3(b). 878 N.W.2d at 522-23. We granted the City's petition for review.

         ANALYSIS

         We are asked to decide whether Peterson's claim was timely filed under Minn. Stat. § 363A.28, subd. 3. Section 363A.28, subdivision 3(a), states that a claim under the MHRA must be "brought as a civil action . . . or filed in a charge with the [Commissioner of the Department of Human Rights] within one year after the occurrence of the [unlawful discriminatory] practice." But the statute provides that the limitations 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 . . . ."[2] Id., subd. 3(b). The parties agree that Peterson brought his claim more than 1 year after the occurrence of the unlawful discriminatory practice, but they disagree about whether his action was timely.

         Peterson contends that his complaint to the City's human resources department and the department's subsequent investigation triggered Minn. Stat. § 363A.28, subd. 3(b), and suspended the 1-year limitations period. Because such a suspension would bring Peterson's claim within the 1-year limitations period, he argues that his claim was not time-barred under the statute. On the other hand, the City of Minneapolis argues that Peterson's complaint and the subsequent human resources investigation did not suspend the limitations period. Accordingly, the City contends that Peterson's suit was not timely filed.

         I.

         The parties' arguments require that we interpret the suspension provision in section 363A.28, subdivision 3(b). We review statutory interpretation issues de novo. Krueger v. Zeman Constr. Co., 781 N.W.2d 858, 861 (Minn. 2010). The "goal of all statutory interpretation is to ascertain and effectuate the intention of the legislature." Christianson v. Henke, 831 N.W.2d 532, 536 (Minn. 2013) (citations omitted) (internal quotation marks omitted). When interpreting statutes, our first step is to determine if the statute is ambiguous, meaning that the statute is subject to more than one reasonable interpretation. Id. at 536-37 (citations omitted). If the statute is unambiguous, we enforce the language of the statute and " '[do] not explore the spirit or purpose of the law.' " Id. at 537 (quoting Caldas v. Affordable Granite & Stone, Inc., 820 N.W.2d 826, 836 (Minn. 2012)).

         The parties dispute three different parts of the suspension provision in section 363A.28, subdivision 3(b): whether they were "voluntarily engaged" in a process, whether that process was a "dispute resolution process, " and whether the process "involv[ed] a claim of unlawful ...


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