Yvette Ford v. Minneapolis Public Schools. MN whistleblower, statute of limitation
Yvette Ford began working for the Minneapolis Public Schools as an independent contractor in the English Language Learner's Department (ELL) in 2006. In 2007, she obtained a full-time job with the district as the public relations director of the Multi-Cultural Multi-Language (MCML) department. In the summer of 2007, she reported some financial improprieties and budget discrepancies to the district superintendent and also to another staff person. After making this report, she alleged that her workload dramatically increased and that she was mistreated by her supervisor as well as coworkers. In April of the next year, her boss told her that her job was going to be "excessed," meaning that Ford would be out of a job the next fall.
Shortly thereafter, she met with a lawyer who worked for the district as the director of diversity and equal opportunity. This lawyer allegedly told Ford that she was a neutral party who would preserve Ford's rights and guide her through the process. Based on this representation, Ford didn't pursue any other type of complaint. But after not hearing anything, she filed a discrimination complaint with the Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights. This was initiated one day before her last day on the job, and a lawsuit was filed in 2010. The district removed this case to federal court. That court dismissed the federal claims, but remanded the whistleblower claim to state court in Hennepin County.
The district then moved to dismiss the remaining whistleblower claim. The court dismissed the claim, holding that it was barred by the statute of limitations. The district court held that the clock started running in 2008, when Ford was told that she was being "excessed."
Ford then appealed to the Minnesota Court of Appeals, where she made two arguments. First, she argued that the lower court had erred, and the statute of limitations actually began to run at a later time. She also argued that the district lawyer's representations should have equitably tolled the running of the statute of limitations.
The Court of Appeals first held that the lower court had correctly set the time running when Ford was first notified that her job would be terminated. The court held that this was "unequivocal, unconditional notice of termination."
The Court of Appeals next took a look at her argument that equitable tolling applied. But the court pointed to advice that Ford had received from the Minneapolis Civil RIghts Department. That department had warned her that employers often drag their feet in the hopes of letting the statute of limitations run out. At that time, she had a full year to file her complaint, and the Court of Appeals held that it was not reasonable for her to rely on the district lawyer's representations past that point.
For these reasons, the Court of Appeals affirmed the Hennepin County District Court.
No. A13-1072 (Minn. Ct. App. April 21, 2014).
Please see the original opinion for the court's exact language.
Richard P. Clem is an attorney and continuing legal education (CLE) provider in Minnesota. He has been in private practice in the Twin Cities for 25 years. He has a J.D., cum laude, from Hamline University School of Law in St. Paul and a B.A. in History from the University of Minnesota. His reported cases include: Asociacion Nacional de Pescadores a Pequena Escala o Artesanales de Colombia v. Dow Quimica de Colombia, 988 F.2d 559, rehearing denied, 5 F.3d 530 (5th Cir. 1993), cert. denied, 510 U.S. 1041 (1994); LaMott v. Apple Valley Health Care Center, 465 N.W.2d 585 (Minn. Ct. App. 1991); Abo el Ela v. State, 468 N.W.2d 580 (Minn. Ct. App. 1991).
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