Fletcher V. St. Paul Pioneer Press
Minnesota Supreme Court
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This case arises out of an employment discrimination claim under the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA), Minn. Stat. § 363.03, subd. 7 (1998). Following a bench trial, the trial court entered judgment in favor of the appellant, St. Paul Pioneer Press (Pioneer Press), finding that the Pioneer Press had not intentionally discriminated against the respondent, Rundell Fletcher. Fletcher appealed to the court of appeals, which disagreed with the trial court's findings and Conclusions, and reversed. We conclude that the trial court's findings were not clearly erroneous and support the trial court's Conclusions, and therefore reverse and remand for reinstatement of the trial court's judgment. The facts giving rise to this lawsuit are largely undisputed. The Pioneer Press hired Fletcher as a journeyman pressman in January of 1988. During the hiring process, Fletcher falsified his application and submitted a false resume. Fletcher, in fact, was not qualified to work as a journeyman pressman, a union position. Upon learning that Fletcher was not a qualified journeyman pressman, the Pioneer Press demoted Fletcher to the position of apprentice, yet continued to compensate Fletcher at the full rate of a journeyman. In 1990, Fletcher, still an apprentice, was laid off pursuant to the Pioneer Press' collective bargaining agreement. During this lay-off, Fletcher became eligible for employment as a journeyman pressman. The Pioneer Press rehired Fletcher as a journeyman in January of 1991, at which time he began accruing seniority. In March of 1991, Fletcher was again laid off in accordance with the Pioneer Press' collective bargaining agreement. One year later, in March of 1992, Fletcher's right to be rehired into a journeyman position by the Pioneer Press pursuant to the collective bargaining agreement expired. The collective bargaining agreement under which the journeymen were employed required the Pioneer Press to employ a minimum of 38 journeymen. In June of 1992, the Pioneer Press employed 38 journeymen and had no openings for additional journeymen. However, in June of 1992, the Pioneer Press created a press wiper position in the pressroom. This position paid approximately $8 per hour, in comparison with the $22 per hour earned by journeymen. In hopes that he might be considered for the next journeyman position, Fletcher, still unemployed following his lay-off from the Pioneer Press in March of 1991, applied for and accepted the position of press wiper. He was never promised the next journeyman position, but it was widely known that he anticipated being promoted into a journeyman position the next time an opening occurred. The Pioneer Press was under no obligation to either create a position for Fletcher or to hire him for any newly created or newly opened positions. During Fletcher's employment as a press wiper, Art Miller was the assistant manager of the Pioneer Press' pressroom, and as such was responsible for supervising all pressroom employees, including the press wiper. Miller was a 25-year employee of the Pioneer Press who had been an assistant manager for approximately 10 years. On the morning of August 20, 1992, Fletcher was working as a press wiper and was under Miller's supervision. During the shift, Fletcher was talking with two machinists regarding a problem with one of the presses. During this Discussion, Miller approached the group and told Fletcher to get back to work. Miller then asked Fletcher whether Fletcher would be at work the following day. Although Fletcher testified at trial that he calmly told Miller that he was not sure and proceeded to walk away, other witnesses testified that Fletcher responded with anger, swearing at Miller and refusing to answer Miller's question. Fletcher himself had earlier told Pioneer Press' Employee Relations personnel that he and Miller had been in a "heated" argument and were "in each other's faces." In any event, following the verbal exchange Fletcher began to walk away.