United States and Minnesota Supreme Courts issue landmark decisions favoring employees and promoting the public interest

In Bostock v. Clayton County, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the main Federal civil rights statute governing the workplace, Title VII, makes it illegal to discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity. The United States Supreme Court reasoned that “it is impossible to discriminate against a person for being homosexual or transgender without discriminating against that individual based on sex.” This ruling results from many years of hard work by advocates in courts around the nation as well as in the court of public opinion, and Bostock substantially expands the right to workplace fairness under employment law as a consequence.

Importantly, and while rendering its landmark decision, the United States Supreme Court rejected the increasingly used “sole cause” defense by which employers have argued that no civil rights violation can occur unless illegal discrimination is the only reason for the defendant’s conduct. In other words, employment discrimination claims should be viable going forward so long as race, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, or another protected trait played a meaningful role in an employer’s conduct that a current or former employee challenges. Although Bostock did not explicitly address retaliation or harassment claims in the workplace, the ruling should significantly enhance the prosecution of those cases as well. In addition, the compelling logic of this ground-breaking decision should be applied in cases of discrimination, harassment, and/or retaliation regarding housing, insurance, lending, and other matters covered by Title VIII or other civil rights statutes.

In Minnesota Chamber of Commerce v. City of Minneapolis, the Minnesota Supreme Court followed up on its recent unanimous decision in Graco, Inc. v. City of Minneapolis with a similarly progressive ruling that will have a national impact. The Minnesota Supreme Court previously upheld the Minneapolis minimum wage ordinance in Graco, and the Minnesota Supreme Court has now upheld the Minneapolis paid sick and safe time ordinance in Chamber of Commerce. In both cases, the corporate interests opposed to the ordinances argued that State law somehow “preempted” the progressive local laws adopted by Minneapolis. In both cases, the Minnesota Supreme Court decisively rejected those arguments. In Chamber of Commerce, the Minnesota Supreme Court also dismissed the argument that the Minneapolis ordinance has an illegal impact beyond Minneapolis borders. The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that requiring employers to provide paid sick leave and paid safe time for employees working in Minneapolis, even when an employer has no office or facility within city limits, is proper because the paid sick leave and safe time obligations address primarily a local concern.

As the ongoing pandemic shows, compelling employers to provide paid sick leave to employees in Minneapolis addresses public health concerns that go well beyond Minneapolis. The legal victory in Chamber of Commerce, which means that approximately 100,000 more employees in Minneapolis now have paid sick leave, reinforces the growing trend of cities and counties across the country requiring employers to provide paid sick leave. This trend has taken on even greater importance given the lack of responsible leadership at the Federal level, again underscored by the persistent pandemic and how it has been handled to date. Recognizing the inadequate response at the Federal level to people’s needs, Minnesota Governor Tim Walz and Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flannagan as well as the leadership of the Minnesota House of Representatives have been seeking to establish a right to paid sick leave for all Minnesotans. Unfortunately, the Republicans in the Minnesota Legislature have continued to block those efforts – even as the pandemic continues.