Governor Dayton recently signed into law an amendment to Minnesota Statute 363A.33 which now states that a person who brings a claim under the Minnesota Human Rights Act (“MHRA”) seeking redress for an unfair discriminatory practice is entitled to a jury trial. In the past, a judge could hear an MHRA case solely on his or her own or could appoint an advisory jury if the judge believed it would be useful. This change has been a long time coming. In 2007, Dakota County District Judge Timothy Blakely issued an opinion that allowed for an age discrimination lawsuit to be heard by a jury and called the right to a jury trial a “cornerstone of our justice system.”
Allowing all plaintiffs to assert their right to a jury has an impact on Minnesota employers. For the most part, judges are easier to predict than juries. And, since the unpredictableness of juries was previously never a factor for either party there was not a very large incentive for settlement prior to a trial. Likewise, judges were hesitant to dismiss cases on summary judgment motions when the judge knew that he or she would be hearing all the facts themselves in a relatively short trial. As a result, this new change in the MHRA could alter the way businesses and employers handle discrimination claims.
The change in the law is not without its critics. Jury trials are more expensive and taxing on the already under-budget legal system. There is also the opinion that juries will “runaway” if given the chance and return excessive verdicts against employers. Whether this concern is well-founded remains to be seen.
This change does, however, bring the MHRA in line with its federal counterpart, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.