• January 7, 2009

The Minnesota Court of Appeals (Kalitowski, Peterson, Halbrooks) affirmed Olmsted County District Court’s rejection of a Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA) claim brought by a couple of women (the Monsons) who were rejected by the Rochester Athletic Club in their application for a family discount on their athletic club membership fee (given to families and married couples). The holding, “A claim for public-accommodations discrimination under Minn. Stat. ยง 363A.11 (2008) cannot be brought under a disparate-impact theory of proof.” The Court of Appeals agreed with the District Court that the disparate-impact theory is not available under the MHRA for claims arising outside the context of employment discrimination.

The District Court and Court of Appeals both held that plaintiffs could not make a prima facie case of disparate treatment (as opposed to disparate impact) because the Athletic Club treated unmarried heterosexual couples the same as unmarried homosexual ones (the key differences, of course, being that gays cannot marrry in Minnesota and the MHRA is intended to protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation).

As to whether the appellants could have made a disparate impact claim, the Court of Appeals began with a look to the language of the statute itself. The court found “important guidance” in federal court decisions. The court pointed out that, like the federal analogs, the MHRA includes specific language as to employment discrimination (as opposed to public accommodation discrimination) that supports a disparate impact approach. The Court of Appeals also looked to rulings in sister states as support for its outcome.

The opinion reads to me as a “follower opinion” as opposed to a “leader opinion,” by which I mean that the opinion seems to canvas decisions in other jurisdictions, state and federal, and invokes them as a basis for its construction of a Minnesota statute. The court does not rely on this alone. And, of course, there may be nothing wrong with this inherently conservative approach, per se, unless, of course, on a particular issue, one thinks that our state (and our courts) should lead to a fairer, more inclusive, less judgmental, indeed, a less discriminatory social policy than is pervasive or at least common throughout the United States.

It is highly likely that the decision will be appealed to the Minnesota Supreme Court.

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