On July 31, 2013, in a case that possibly opens the door to enlarging the limitations period for other statutory claims, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that a longer statute of limitations applies to a wrongful discharge claim. The court ruled that the six-year statute of limitations, rather than the two-year statute of limitations, applies under the state’s drug and alcohol testing law. The high court’s 5-to-0 decision, authored by Justice Page, with Justices Stras and Wright taking no part, is Sipe v. STS Manufacturing, Inc.
The Minnesota Drug and Alcohol Testing inhe Workplace Act (DATWA), found in sections 181.950-.957 of Minnesota Statutes, allows employers that have established a written policy to require testing for alcohol and other substances and to take disciplinary action, including dismissal, based on the test results. However, the statute contains two limitations that have bedeviled employers in the past, namely, the employer may not discharge an employee:
“on the basis of a positive test result from an initial screening test that has not been verified by a confirmatory test”; or
“for whom a positive test result on a confirmatory test was the first such result for the employee on a drug or alcohol test requested by the employer” unless the employee was first given the opportunity to participate in a drug or alcohol counseling or rehabilitation program and the employee either refused that offer “or failed to successfully complete the program.”
The statute allows employees to sue their employers in district court for money damages, other relief, and attorneys’ fees. In Sipe v. STS Manufacturing, Inc., the case before the supreme court, the employee submitted to a drug test following an injury. The test results were positive, and he was discharged. The employer contended that the employee had waited too long (about three years) to file suit, and the district court agreed, granting the employer’s motion to dismiss based on the two-year statute of limitations found in Minn. Stat. § 541.07(1). The Minnesota Court of Appeals affirmed. The supreme court reversed, holding that the six-year statute of limitations found in Minn. Stat. § 541.05, subd. 1(2) for actions “upon a liability created by statute” applied to claims under DATWA.
The lower courts had agreed with the employer that § 541.07, which applies to actions for “libel, slander, assault, battery, false imprisonment, or other tort resulting in personal injury,” applied to actions under DATWA. The application of the shorter statute of limitation had been widely assumed in light of the similar two-year statute for wage claims found in § 541.07(5) and the fact that shorter statutes of limitations apply to other employment law claims. But, the Minnesota Supreme Court said that § 541.07(1) enumerated what may be categorized as “common law torts”—essentially, the basic types of civil wrongs that have been recognized by British and U.S. law for centuries. The state high court also rejected the view that claims under DATWA come within the “penalty or forfeiture” provisions of § 541.07(2).
The supreme court noted that it had previously ruled in a 1991 decision involving a claim of retaliatory discharge under the Minnesota Workers’ Compensation Act that the phrase in § 541.07, “other tort resulting in personal injury,” had been construed to mean common law intentional torts and had held that the six-year statute of § 541.05 applied to that type of claim. Reasoning that the claim under DATWA, like the claim under the Workers’ Compensation Act, originated in a statute and not in the common law, the court concluded that the six-year statute of limitations applied. Lastly, the court observed that the state legislature could have provided for a different limitations period, but had not done so. The supreme court reversed and remanded the case for consideration of the merits of the employee’s claims.
The implications for employers as a result of the supreme court’s decision in Sipe are clear. Unless a statute concerning workplace rights contains an express limitations period, courts will look to the six-year statute of limitations of Minn. Stat. §. 541.05. In cases arising under DATWA, the longer limitations period may not be as troubling for employers as it could be in other situations. In a drug-testing situation, a documentary record of the actions taken by the employer should be available. In other situations— in cases involving the Minnesota Whistleblower Statute (Minn. Stat. § 181.932), for example—if the six-year statute of limitations were to govern, an employer could have difficulty reconstructing past events and assembling documentation or witness testimony to defend its actions. Perhaps it is time for the Minnesota legislature to consider a uniform two- or three-year statute of limitations for all employment law cases.
Bruce J. Douglas is a shareholder in the Minneapolis office of Ogletree Deakins.
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