Governor Dayton recently signed a bill into law that allows a plaintiff who has brought a discrimination action under the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA) to have a jury trial. See S.F. 2322. The new law takes effect on August 1, 2014.
Until now, MHRA claims were by court trial only, although many judges used advisory juries – especially when the MHRA clam was brought along with other common law claims. Because the MHRA created state a cause of action with unpredictable implications at the time it was adopted, the court-trial requirement was a legislative compromise to counteract unintended results. But that was decades ago, and there has been much development and stabilizing in state discrimination law. Indeed, the right to a jury is fundamental to the Anglo-American legal tradition, so it is not a surprise that it has now caught up with the MHRA.
This change is important to Minnesota employers. A court trial was often a more cost-effective and predictable way to defend against an employment discrimination claim. Court trials are usually shorter than jury trials and decided by a court based upon submitted findings and conclusions. Frankly, there is less of a chance for emotion or prejudice to sway a decision.
But it was not all advantages. For instance, it was often more difficult for a Court to push for settlement prior to or during trial since the Court itself was the finder of fact. Furthermore, summary judgment motions were often more difficult to bring because courts were reluctant to dismiss matters that they themselves would otherwise hear and decide at a brief trial, which would establish a narrower standard of appellate review.
Takeaway: This new law is an important development with both “pros and cons,” which employers and their legal counsel should review when defending existing and potential employment discrimination claims. Cost-risk analysis in any discrimination claim will likely need to be reviewed and perhaps revised. But the best response will be increased care in making employment decisions and the development of a strong record of defense. Ultimately, it is the evidence not the process that controls the outcome of a discrimination case. To borrow from Gilbert and Sullivan, you really can never “throw dust in a jury’s eyes or hoodwink a judge who is not over-wise!”