• July 22, 2011

The Minnesota Court of Appeals issued an important decision last week clarifying the standard for imposing “aiding and abetting” liability under the Minnesota Human Rights Act.  Going forward, a plaintiff will have to prove that a defendant both knew that another person’s conduct constituted a violation of the act and also gave “substantial” assistance or encouragement to that person’s conduct.

Sheila Matthews worked as a business manager for Eichorn Motors, Inc. for a three-month period during 2006. Eichorn Motors was owned by Justin Eichorn and Michael Coombe.  Eichorn held an 85-percent majority interest in Eichorn Motors; Coombe held a 15-percent interest and served as general manager.

Coombe began pursuing Matthews romantically before she began her employment at Eichorn Motors, and he continued once she started.  (For the curious, the Court’s opinion details many of his overtures).   After she was fired for “not following procedure”, Matthews sued Eichorn Motors, Justin Eichorn and his father, Mitch Eichorn, alleging that Coombe had subjected her to sexual harassment and reprisal, in violation of the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA). She also alleged that Mitch Eichorn and Justin Eichorn were liable for aiding and abetting the sexual harassment under the MHRA.

Mitch Eichorn and Justin Eichorn moved for summary judgment on the aiding and abetting claim, which the district court granted. The district court subsequently granted a default judgment against Eichorn Motors, which had ceased operations during the pendency of the litigation. The appeal followed.

In addition to imposing liability on employers, the MHRA also provides: “It is an unfair discriminatory practice for any person . . . intentionally to aid, abet, incite, compel, or coerce a person to engage in any of the practices forbidden by this chapter” or to attempt to do so. Minn. Stat. § 363A.14.  The act does not define the terms “aid” and “abet”, however, and no previous cases had  addressed the legal standard for an aiding-and-abetting claim.

The Court used several different methods to determine that standard, including considering the dictionary definition of “aid” and “abet”, as well as its use in other legal contexts and states.  Ultimately, however, the Court concluded that the standard established in the Restatement (Second) of Torts should govern aiding-and-abetting claims under the MHRA.

Accordingly, a person will be liable for aiding and abetting a violation of the MHRA when that person knows that another person’s conduct constitutes a violation of the MHRA and “gives substantial assistance or encouragement to the other so to conduct himself.” Restatement (Second) of Torts § 876(b).   Whether the requisite degree of knowledge or assistance exists will depend in part on the particular facts and circumstances of each case. Factors such as the relationship between the defendant and the primary tortfeasor, the nature of the primary tortfeasor’s activity, the nature of the assistance provided by the defendant, and the defendant’s state of mind all come into play. Significantly, the Court also held that a defendant’s failure to act does not constitute “substantial assistance.”

This case should make it more difficult for plaintiffs to establish “aiding and abetting” liability against individual defendants under the MHRA.

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