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Employer settles with Minnesota woman in discrimination case

Most Minnesotans probably know that state and federal laws generally prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of race or several other factors. They might not know that marital status can also be a source of unlawful employment discrimination.

A case that recently resulted in a $50,000 settlement to an ex-employee was the first marriage discrimination case the Minnesota Department of Human Rights had handled in at least a decade, according to the agency.

The case stems from a 2010 incident in which a man decided to leave his job as manager at an Auto Value Parts retail store in St. Cloud to take another position with the company's competitor, Napa Auto Parts. On the day he left, the company fired his wife, who worked as a bookkeeper for a different Auto Value Parts store, telling her that the company did not approve of employees' spouses working for competitors because this would violate a conflict of interest policy.

The company admitted to firing the woman because of her husband's new job, but argued that this did not amount to unlawful discrimination. After the woman took her complaint to the Department of Human Rights, the agency found that the company's conflict of interest policy was overly broad and likely against the law. The company settled the dispute by giving the woman $50,000 and paying a $5,000 fine.

Most employees in Minnesota are considered at-will, meaning that employers have a lot of freedom to fire them for almost any reason. However, there are limitations on that freedom. Minnesota worker protection laws and federal laws such as the Civil Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act are designed to protect employees from racial discrimination, sex discrimination and several other kinds of grossly unfair employment actions.

When an employee is fired for an unlawful reason, the ex-employee may be compensated for lost wages or receive other damages in an action for wrongful termination. It is important that employees understand their rights as well as understand the decision-making powers their employers have and do not have.

Source: Star-Tribune, "Firing wife costs St. Cloud auto parts firm $55,000," Alejandro Matos, May 9, 2013

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