On January 20, 2016, the Minnesota Supreme Court decided Ford v. Minneapolis Public Schools, setting a six-year statute of limitations for certain employee whistleblower claims. The court held that the statute of limitations for a retaliation claim by an employee based on that employee’s reporting of violations of law is six years under the Minnesota Whistleblower Act (MWA).
The MWA prohibits an employer from discharging, disciplining, threatening, or otherwise discriminating against an employee if the employee: (1) in good faith, reports a violation or suspected violation of law to the employer; (2) is requested to participate in a public investigation; (3) refuses the employer’s order to violate the law; (4) reports health care services that violate legal standards; (5) communicates study findings to the government; or (6) communicates information to a legislator.
Ford allegedly reported unethical and illegal activities in her department to her employer. On April 22, 2008, Minneapolis Public Schools informed Ford that her position would be terminated at the end of the school year. On June 29, 2010, over two years later, Ford brought suit under subdivision 1(1) of the MWA, alleging that MPS retaliated against her for reporting a violation of law.
MPS argued that the applicable statute of limitations that should apply was two years because the tort of wrongful discharge should fall under Minn. Stat. § 540.07(1), which provides a two-year statute of limitations for “tort[s] resulting in personal injury.” Ford argued that the statute of limitations should be six years because wrongful discharge should fall under Minn. Stat. § 541.05 subd. 1(2), which provides a six-year statute of limitations for “a liability created by statute.”
The Minnesota Supreme Court, quoting its 2013 case, Sipe v. STS Manufacturing, Inc.,, held that the two-year statute of limitations in Minn. Stat. § 541.07(1) is “limited to common law causes of action not created by statute,” such as libel, slander, assault, and battery. .
Following Sipe, the issue that the court analyzed was whether a claim for wrongful discharge under subdivision 1(1) of the MWA was created in common law or was only a creature of statute. The court explained that while there is a common law cause of action for wrongful discharge for an employee’s refusal to violate the law, there has never been a common law cause of action for an employee who reports violations of the law. Therefore, Ford’s claim qualifies as “a liability created by statute,” making the statute of limitations six years.
The court acknowledged that there will now be different statutes of limitations depending on what subdivision of the MWA the employee sues under, but noted that was a job for the legislature. In practice, this means that while most causes of action brought by an employee against an employer have a one or two year statute of limitations, including a claim under the MWA for retaliation against an employee who refuses to violate the law, a retaliation claim for reporting violations of the law, and possibly any other subsection of the statute, will run for six years. Extending the statute of limitations to six years will very likely bring about more employee claims being presented as retaliation for reporting violations of law under MWA subdivision 1(1).