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Recent amendments to the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA), which take effect on August 1, 2014, significantly change how lawsuits under that law will be decided in court. Currently, the MHRA does not allow for a jury trial; instead, it states that all disputes “shall be heard and determined by a judge sitting without a jury.” However, the 2014 legislature amended the law to provide: “A person bringing a civil action seeking redress for an unfair discriminatory practice or a respondent is entitled to a jury trial.” In other words, a jury will decide if an employer violated the MHRA.
So why is this change significant? For one, jury trials are generally far more expensive and complicated compared to cases tried only to a judge. Second, the outcome of a trial by jury is often more difficult to predict than a “bench trial” to a judge. Juries tend to sympathize with employees and see employers as nameless, faceless entities. Third, jurors tend to draw from their personal experiences as employees to guide their decision-making process. This may not play well for an employer, especially in discharge cases.
Make no mistake; this amendment to the MHRA is a plaintiff and plaintiff lawyer’s bonanza. The fact that the MHRA allows for a jury trial does not change any prior advice on complying with the law or affect the need to consult experienced and qualified legal counsel on issues related to the MHRA. However, employers and defense counsel should take note that discrimination, harassment and retaliation claims in Minnesota are likely to become more complex and costly to defend against after August 1, 2014.
For any questions regarding the MHRA contact the attorneys in Wessels Sherman’s Minneapolis Office at (952) 746-1700.
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