Maybe not – a federal court in Minnesota recently denied a motion to dismiss against an employee who alleged that the employer denied her request for a bathroom break, forcing her to resort to peeing in a box, and then fired her.
In Prince v. Electrolux Home Products, Inc., the plaintiff worked on a manufacturing line and suffered from a medical condition that required her to use the bathroom frequently. Civ. No. 13-2316 (DWF/LIB) (D. Minn., Feb. 14, 2014). One day, at 12:45 p.m., the plaintiff motioned for her supervisor to relieve her on the production line so that she could use the restroom. The supervisor did not respond. At 1:20 p.m., after several more requests without a response from her supervisor, the plaintiff decided she could wait no longer. Because she feared retribution if she left the production line, the plaintiff resorted to urinating in a box behind a barrel near her station. The plaintiff alleged other employees had resorted to similar measures in the past. The plaintiff was terminated shortly after the incident.
After her termination, an arbitration was held to determine whether the employee was terminated for just cause. The arbitrator determined that there was no just cause for her termination and ordered the employee reinstated.
After the arbitration, the employee filed a lawsuit in state court, which the employer removed to federal court. In the lawsuit, the employee alleged violations of the Minnesota Occupational Safety and Health Act (MOSHA) as well as Minn. Stat. § 177.253, which requires employers to provide employees with “adequate time from work within each four consecutive hours of work to utilize the nearest convenient restroom.” The employer moved to dismiss the case for failure to state a claim.
The court denied the employer’s motion to dismiss with respect to both of the employee’s claims. With respect to the MOSHA claim, the court held that the employee alleged sufficient facts to show that the employer denied her access to toilet facilities and, therefore, failed to “provide” toilet facilities, as required by 29 C.F.R. § 1910.141(c)(1)(i). The court further held that the employee had a private right of action under MOSHA – specifically, Minn. Stat. § 182.654, subd. 9 – because she alleged she was terminated for exercising her rights under MOSHA (by having to resort to urinating in a box).
With respect to the claim under Minn. Stat. § 177.253, the court held that dismissal was not warranted because there was a question regarding whether the employer “provided adequate time” for the employee to use the restroom, as required by the statute.
Finally, the court concluded that the lawsuit was not precluded by the previous arbitration decision because: (i) the arbitrator did not specifically address the issues of whether the employer violated Minnesota law; and (ii) the case does not depend substantially on interpretation of a collective bargaining agreement.
Takeaway: The Prince case shows that an employee may be able to assert causes of action against an employer if the employee is forced to resort to urinating in a box or other receptacle because the employer denied the employee the ability to access a restroom. However, in cases in which an employee voluntarily chooses to urinate in an inappropriate area of the workplace, with no denial of access to restroom facilities by the employer, employers may likely still proceed with discipline or termination. This recently happened at a Pizza Hut in West Virginia.