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1953



Born in Fargo North Dakota on November 09, 1953 at 2:08 P.M.

 
1957
 My baby sister Cindy Ann was born.. March 30th !
 
1961

Family moved to 82 Woodland Drive, Fargo North Dakota from our home of 18 years, Summit Avenue ...Detroit Lakes, Minnesota

 
1969

My dad, Irvin F. Warfield, lost his job with Leslie Paper Company that he had all his working life. He got a new job with Oshkosh Paper and opened a Branch office in Madison Wisconsin.
We lived in a brand new Raised Ranch at: 1001 Greenwich Drive.

 
1988
Time for a move again!
Dad retired from LESLIE PAPER COMPANY! Yes, as fate would have it, Leslie Paper bought out Oshkosh and let Dad keep his job this time even though they let him go back in 69' because he was too old....
His health wasn't the best. Bad heart, getting old, so we moved back to Mom and Dad's old stomping grounds... Park Rapids Minnesota!
To a beautiful Chalet on Potato lake with 22 acres!
May 28, 1988
 
1989
Aunt Beulah dies suddenly.
Mom inherits a large sum of money and all of her only sister's belongings.

It is a bad time for Mom, as she loved Beulah so much.She was like a mother to her when her own mom was not.

One day a huge moving van arrived with all of Aunt Beulah's things! Among them, was a Piano. Mom and Dad hired two men to bring it into the lower level. I was not home at the time. On my usual 10 mile walks! I was fit and trim then! 
Mom and Dad talked constantly to one of the men about me...
"You should meet our daughter Debi".... Edward LaBonte, one of the men kept my name in his heart from then on..
He would look towards the lake from where he worked and wondered about the girl "Debi Warfield"

The money was a Godsend for Mom and I in the coming years.

 
1990
Dad dies....
          Dad's health continued to decline. A bad stroke took his voice and ability to swallow. I had to tube feed him. First, he had the tube going through his nostrils to his stomach,but he hated it! He kept pulling it out. To the Emergency Room we'd go to get it put back in. Finally, he had a procedure so that the tube feeding could be done through an opening in the stomach. This was much easier on him and the person feeding him.
Life was not good for him now. He only wanted to sleep. Finally, one day, he did go to sleep in the arms of Jesus.
Mom was lost....
 
1990-1995

Dad's death has done Mom in. She is losing herself more everyday.
   We spent a good deal of the money putting a new roof and new deck on the house. Even though we are alone in the woods with just us two and a Great Dane and some cats, it is a good life, although I know I am losing my Mom too, only in another way......

 
1995 JULY ALL SCHOOL REUNION
It's Mom's All School Reunion! I have to help her get dressed now. She doesn't know what to do anymore. She is getting more quiet all the time and has lost so much of herself. 

We go to the Eagles Club during the Reunion one evening...

I look pretty darn good!
Mom does too!
Low and behold, a handsome stranger comes to ask my Mother to dance! I couldn't believe it! Here I had been making "eyes" at him all night long... He was so handsome! Over he comes! Now he'll ask me to dance! Ah! No, not so!
He came up to my Mother and asked her to dance...
Away they went on the dance floor....
Mom was talkative with him that night...
"You should really meet my daughter Debi".......
His name..
Edward LaBonte

And so, I did meet him. I danced with him and sparks flew....
I had never felt such electricity before... 
Who was this fellow and what was he doing to my insides?????
 
1997 NOVEMBER 18TH OUR WEDDING DAY !





Yep... Ed and I were a thing for those two years up to this one. He'd call me most every night. Bring me lavender roses, roses. Beautiful cards. One night, after we had danced the night away at our favorite haunt, The Eagles, he asked me to marry him!
I said YES!

We drove to Fargo North Dakota one cloudy miserable day to get a marriage license.Darn it all if the Security Man wouldn't let me into the courthouse! The beeper kept going off everytime I went through the security barrier!
Wouldn't you know, it was because of all the studs I had on my Western Boots, my shirt, and my silver concho belt...
After a few swipes with his hand-held thingie, he figured out I was a safe bet and let me through !!
Once we had our license, we learned that  we would have to come back and get married in a week or so when there was an opening at the Court House. The gal gave Ed and I our License and a cute little
"Bride's Bag" full of things to set up housekeeping. Small, trial sizes of laundry soap, toothpaste, etc.... It was sort of funny to me!!! Here I was 44 years old... and I was getting a blushing bride bundle!!!!

I got a Brainstorm of an idea! 
Ed agreed and we drove to the local Salvation Army Chapel. 
The Commander was just finishing a TV spot that was focusing on the upcoming Christmas Red Ketlle Kickoff.
We sat down with him and told him we wanted to be married.
He asked us some questions and then sat back and thought deeply..
Finally he said.. You know I promised myself I would never marry a couple again who just came in and asked off the street so to say...
. I did it the last time and the woman was back in here the next year with another man asking that I marry them.
But you two look like you know what you are doing. Come back in an hour and I will marry you.
And so it was, in that lovely little chapel, with our kind chaplain, two witnesses and lovely music playing on the piano,, Ed and I became Man and Wife.
Ed and I were always holding hands in those days! Even on the way back home to Park Rapds. I remember we stopped to have a special wedding supper at "The Red Lanturn"... We ordered Prime Rib.. Both our cuts were raw with the blubber on the meat still wiggling away!! Yuck! 
We never forgot our Wedding day!

 
DECEMBER 1997 OUR WEDDING DANCE !
We had a very special Wedding Celebration in December at our place... The Eagles! Our favorite singing Duo "The NEEDHAM TWINS"    http://www.needhamtwins.com/
We danced our first dance together to OUR song... Blue Spanish Eyes...
 
1999 ANOTHER MOVE
MOM WAS BAD. WE COULDN'T AFFORD TO LIVE UP ON THE LAKE ANY LONGER. TAXES HAD TRIPLED. WE NEEDED A NEW SEPTIC SYSTEM TO CONFORM TO THE NEW LAWS. WE DIDN'T HAVE THE MONEY. 
AND I HAD TO GO THROUGH A VERY ROUGH TIME WITH MOM. IT ALMOST KILLED MY SPIRIT, BUT WITH THE HELP OF GOD AND OF MY HUSBAND I MADE IT THROUGH THAT BLACK TIME IN HELL.
ED WENT TO THE BANK AND WE SOLD THE HOUSE ON THE LAKE TO A VERY WEALTHY DENTIST FROM LITCHFIELD. WE FOUND A HOBBYFARM SOUTH OF TOWN WITH 8 ACRES. 
HERE, ED AND OUR GOOD FRIENDS CLEO AND DARRELL MOVED ALL OUR BELONGINGS TO THIS OUR NEW HOME. I WAS NOT IN ANY SHAPE TO HELP MUCH. WHAT WITH THE CARE OF MY MOTHER AND WHAT I HAD JUST BEEN THROUGH, I WAS NOT MUCH HELP.
BUT WE ARRIVED! IT WAS A NICE HOME! NOT AS MUCH WORK! ONLY ONE LEVEL ! THAT WAS A RELIEF. THERE WAS TOO MUCH HOUSE TO TAKE CARE OF ON THE LAKE. IT WAS ALMOST 2500 SQUARE FEET.  I WAS NOT UP TO IT.
I WAS GLAD TO BE HERE IN OUR NEW HOME, THE THREE OF US, AND MY MANY GREAT PYRENEE, PUGS, AND CATS....
 
2001 ED'S DEAR MOTHER LEAVES US TO BE WITH THE LORD
HAZEL LABONTE, MY DEAREST MOTHER-IN-LAW WAS SUCH A NOBLE WOMAN. SUCH REFINEMENT, WISDOM, AND QUIET KINDNESS. 
SHE HAD HAD OPEN HEART SURGERY TWO YEARS BEFORE ALL ALL WENT WELL, THEN ANOTHER HEART PROCEDURE A YEAR LATER. 
ALL WAS WELL.
SHE HAD A HYSTERECTOMY IN DECEMBER OF 2001. SHE HAD SEEN BLOOD IN HER URINE. DR. SMITH CAME OUT AND TOLD THE FAMILY IT DIDN'T LOOK LIKE CANCER, AND ALL LOOKED WELL.
ON DECEMBER 21ST, 2001 HAZEL WALKED INTO THE ARMS OF JESUS. A BLOOD CLOT HAD TRAVELED TO HER LUNG.
AFTERWARD, HER DOCTOR CAME TO THE FAMILY WITH THE RESULTS OF HER BIOPSY. SHE HAD HAD CANCER. 
BUT STILL, IT DIDN'T MAKE IT ANY EASIER FOR US. 
SHE WAS THE GLUE THAT HELD THE FAMILY'S HEART TOGETHER.
 
2003 APRIL 5TH... ED IS ILLEGAL FIRED FROM HIS JOB
I WAS STILL UP WHEN ED LEFT FOR WORK THAT MORNING! IT WAS GOING TO BE HIS 60'TH BIRTHDAY THE NEXT DAY, SO I WAS HAPPILY PLANNING IT. 
NOT MORE THAN AN HOUR AFTER HE HAD GONE, HERE HE WAS BACK.
HE CAME IN THE DOOR, PLUNKED DOWN SOME PAPER IN FRONT OF ME AND SOFTLY SAID... "THEY LET ME GO"
HOW LONG ? I ASKED..
FOREVER.....
THUS BEGAN THE LONG QUEST OF FIGHTING THE INJUSTICE DONE TO MY ED BY TEAM INDUSTRIES.
 
2003 STEPHEN W. COOPER FORMER MINNESOTA COMMISSIONER OF HUMAN RIGHTS TAKES EM' ON !!!!
IT TOOK SOME RESEARCH, SEARCHING, AND PRAYING. BUT I FOUND HIM!
THE BEST OF THE BEST!
THE SHINING KNIGHT THAT RIGHTS WRONGS!
AFTER WEEKS OF INVESTIGATIONS ON THE INTERENT, THE LORD LEAD ME TO COOPER LAW FIRM, MINNEAPOLIS MN.
I FILLED OUT THE INFO ON THEIR ONLINE FORM AND THEY CALLED ED BACK WITHIN DAYS.
ED AND I RETAINED MR. COOPER AND HIS FIRM TO FIGHT TEAM FOR ILLEGALLY FIRING ED BECAUSE HE WAS OLDER. THERE WERE 32 OTHER MEN AND WOMEN THAT WERE GOTTEN RID OF THAT DAY ALSO!
ED WAS THE ONLY ONE THAT COULD OR WOULD COME UP WITH THE $5000.00 RETAINER FEE.
S0 BEGAN THE LONG PROCESS OF TAKING TEAM TO COURT FOR THEIR WRONG DOING !!!
 
SEPTEMBER 2005 MOM NO LONGER IS ENTITLED TO HOME HEALTH CARE
ABANDONED.. MY MOTHER HAS LIVED TOO LONG IN THE EYES OF ST. JOSEPH'S HOME HEALTH CARE DIRECTOR AND MOM'S NURSE.
I HAVE TAKEN CARE OF MOM UNDER THE HOME HEALTH CARE STAFF FOR THESE 5 YEARS. MOM HAS NEEDED TO HAVE A CATHETER WHICH IS CHANGED EVERY 21 DAYS. SHE NEEDS TO BE  HAND FEED, WASHED, AND LOOKED AFTER 24/7.
COLLEEN, MOM'S NURSE, SAID THAT MOM SHOULD HAVE DIED LONG AGO. THAT I HAD TAKEN SUCH GOOD CARE OF HER. 
HOME HEALTH SERVICES COULDN'T KEEP HER ON ANY LONGER AS HER CONDITION DIDN'T WARRANT IT.
IF ONLY I HAD THE STRENGTH, I WOULD HAVE FOUND AN ATTORNEY WHO COULD HAVE HELPED ME FIGHT THEM ON THIS.
SINCE THIS DAY, I HAVE HAD TO PERSONALLY PAY FOR ALL OF MY MOTHERS MEDICAL SUPPLIES AS MEDICARE WON'T PAY A DIME IF SHE HAS NOT BEEN RE-CERTIFIED BY THE HOME HEALTH AGENCY OR HER DOCTOR...
ABANDONED.. MOM AND ME....
I AM STRONG. I WILL CARE FOR HER ALWAYS...
 
FEBRUARY 8TH 2006
TEAM ordered to pay $255,000 in age discrimination case

In a case that could have ramifications for laid-off Detroit Lakes workers, District Judge Jay Mondry has ordered TEAM Industries to pay a former employee nearly $255,000 for age discrimination.
The discrimination lawsuit, brought by Edward LaBonte, 62, of Park Rapids, began in June. Over 11 days throughout June, July and August, Mondry heard arguments from TEAM’s attorney, Alec Beck of Minneapolis, and LaBonte’s attorney, Stephen Cooper, Minneapolis, former Minnesota Commissioner of Human Rights.
“We are pleased that Mr. LaBonte had the opportunity to be heard and fairly decided,” Cooper said Monday. “We remain disappointed TEAM acted in the way it did and are pleased (LaBonte) had a just result. We certainly hope other employers remember value and importance of their skilled older workers and will look to this case as a reminder of that.”
Tuesday, TEAM released this official statement on the case:
“TEAM Industries is disappointed in the court’s decision. We are confident that TEAM did nothing wrong or illegal with respect to Mr. LaBonte’s employment. We also believe the court’s decision contains errors and we anticipate filing an appeal. TEAM Industries is proud of its treatment of its employees and continues to have as its business mission, ‘the creation and maintaining of jobs in central and northern Minnesota.’”
LaBonte claimed TEAM Industries of Park Rapids discriminated against him and other older workers during a round of layoffs in April 2003, in which many of the 32 terminated employees were over the age of 50. TEAM insisted the layoffs were non-discriminatory and were necessary due to a work shortage.
To determine which workers to cut, TEAM used a “forced ranking” tool, in which every employee is compared to every other employee individually. LaBonte was ranked in the bottom 25 percent of employees and was therefore terminated. However, by every indication, he was a good worker; co-workers and supervisors testified he was skilled, qualified and did not have any disciplinary or production problems.
In his decision, Mondry said there was little evidence presented indicating forced ranking significantly improved financial or working conditions at TEAM and questioned the system’s validity.
Mondry also said analysis of the data showed age was indeed a factor in the terminations. While six people under age 29 were let go in 2003 — 10 percent of that total age group employed at TEAM — five workers over 60 years old were fired, or 62 percent of that age group at TEAM.
Further, Mondry found that prior to the terminations, a report was prepared that indicated 21 employees who were to be terminated were over age 40, but the terminations were carried out anyway.
The court awarded LaBonte back pay in the amount of $82,650, “front pay” in the amount of $171,600 (Labonte’s previous salary multiplied by five years) and attorney’s fees.
At the TEAM plant in Detroit Lakes, the same ranking system was used to determine who would be laid off. The Detroit Lakes layoff was implemented on the same day — April 7, 2003 — as was the Park Rapids layoff.
Fourteen employees were laid off at Detroit Lakes, reducing the workforce from 112 to 98, according to a post-trial brief from Beck.

 
MARCH 2 2006 TEAM STILL DOESN'T GET IT !
Thursday, March 02, 2006
TEAM STILL DOESN'T GET IT
TEAM Industries
still doesn’t get it
It is unfortunate that TEAM Industries has learned so little from the recent court case. The evidence revealed TEAM laid off skilled, older workers with excellent skills and loyal service and kept younger, brand new employees with little or no previous experience. In Park Rapids, 72.7 percent of those terminated by their forced choice tool were over 40, but only 40.4 percent of the people in those jobs were over 40. The chances of being terminated if you were in your 20s or 30s, was only about 7 percent, but if you were 60, it was 10 times that or 75 percent.
The testimony revealed if the first deselection list was used, Mr. LaBonte would not have been terminated. But replacement list after replacement list was used, constantly changing who would be terminated. TEAM Industries did not follow its own deselection tool, but granted exemption to whomever it wished.
Even before the layoff in issue here, the age of TEAM’s workforce was substantially below what one would expect it to be if age was not a factor in hiring and firing employees.
Expert testimony revealed that the layoff was extremely unlikely to have occurred as it did if age was not a factor. TEAM’s own expert testified TEAM had not followed recognized procedures to assure a non-discriminatory termination.
After Mr. LaBonte was terminated, he was never offered a new position by TEAM.
It is unfortunate that TEAM still publicly attacks a person who it admits was a hard-working, effective employee for them. Mr. LaBonte deserves an apology, not further attack.
While TEAM takes shots at Mr. LaBonte and the court’s decision, Mr. LaBonte and the other fired workers, continue to suffer. Being disappointed or even angered by a court decision that does not go as you would hope, is understandable, but failing to learn, grow and change from it, is not. TEAM needs to rise up and be the employer it claims to be and take the hard steps necessary to assure that it does not devalue and discriminate against older workers.

Stephen W. Cooper, Esq.

The Cooper Law Firm, Chartered

 
JUNE 28TH, 2006 JUDGE RULES FOR LABONTE-AGAIN !
Judge rules for LaBonte - again
Lu Ann Hurd-Lof Park Rapids Enterprise
Published Friday, July 07, 2006

Judge Jay D. Mondry recently denied motions by TEAM Industries in the age discrimination case brought by Edward LaBonte and awarded LaBonte’s attorney fees and costs.

Mondry heard the original case last summer. LaBonte claimed he was wrongfully fired during a round of layoffs at the Park Rapids plant in early 2003. He and others over the age of 50 were among 32 terminated employees.

TEAM insisted the layoffs were nondiscriminatory and were necessary due to a work slowdown.

In February, Mondry found for LaBonte and ordered TEAM to pay LaBonte front and back pay of $254,250 plus attorney’s fees.

Shortly after the judge’s order was issued, TEAM’s attorney Alec Beck of Minneapolis moved for either a new trial or a change in the court’s findings. He also challenged the court’s decision to award LaBonte’s attorney’s fees and costs.

Mondry’s latest order was filed June 28.

TEAM had claimed LaBonte’s efforts to find another job were less than adequate so he should not be awarded front and back pay.

In arriving at his decision, the judge upheld his earlier determination that LaBonte was not required to take any position that was offered, that “finding suitable employment in Park Rapids cannot be compared to finding employment in the Twin Cities” and Team provided no evidence that LaBonte turned down positions or hesitated to secure subsequent employment.

The order also addressed TEAM’s arguments that LaBonte’s attorney, Stephen Cooper, Minneapolis, had not met all the requirements to prove a case of age discrimination.

For example, TEAM argued Cooper failed to prove he was qualified for the job in question and claimed they offered LaBonte an opportunity to be rehired and he declined.

Mondry wrote, “The defendants (TEAM) can not have it both ways. Clearly the evidence demonstrates the plaintiff (LaBonte) was in fact a qualified person for the position.”

Further, the judge found LaBonte “has met his burden of proof and established that age discrimination was a causative factor in the decision to terminate him.”

Another point of contention had been TEAM’s use of a “forced ranking” system to measure each employee’s performance. This system was used to determine which employees were laid off.

The forced ranking system negatively affected older workers but was used even though other alternatives were available to the employer, Mondry’s order states.

The order also awards attorney’s fees and costs of $237,494.

In March, Beck said TEAM would file an appeal regardless of whether motions before the court in Hubbard County were granted or not.

This week, the LaBontes said they expect TEAM will appeal.


 
SEPTEMBER 5TH, 2006.. TEAM APPEALS COURT'S DECISION

TEAM appeals court's decision
Lu Ann Hurd-Lof
Park Rapids Enterprise - 09/05/2006


TEAM Industries is appealing Judge Jay D. Mondry’s decisions in the age discrimination case brought by Edward LaBonte.

In February, Mondry found in favor of LaBonte, awarding him front and back pay of $254,250 plus attorney’s fees.

TEAM filed a motion for a new trial or amended findings March 8.

Mondry found for LaBonte again. In June, the judge issued an order denying the motion for a new trial and awarding LaBonte’s attorney fees and costs of $237,494.

The appeal challenges all aspects of the case from the award of pay to whether or not LaBonte’s layoff was justified.

LaBonte had been employed as a machine operator for approximately five years and was 60 at the time of layoffs at the Park Rapids plant April 7, 2003. Of 32 people terminated at that time, 21 were 40 years old or older. One expert, who testified during the trial, said the odds of an employee being terminated increased along with the employee’s age.

In addition, the court record states that while approximately 67 percent of the county’s available workforce is over age 40, only 44 percent of TEAM’s workers were in the over 40 group, even prior to the terminations.

TEAM claims the layoffs were nondiscriminatory and were necessary due to a work slowdown. Further, TEAM claimed LaBonte’s efforts to find another job were less than adequate so he should not have been awarded front and back pay.

Mondry ruled that LaBonte was not required to take any position that was offered. “Finding suitable employment in Park Rapids cannot be compared to finding employment in the Twin Cities,” Mondry determined. He also ruled that TEAM provided no evidence that LaBonte turned down positions or hesitated to secure subsequent employment.

Last week, LaBonte’s attorney, Stephen Cooper, Minneapolis, said TEAM has raised no new arguments in the appeal.

“The evidence (for LaBonte) is overwhelming,” and the statistics bear that out, Cooper said. “They definitely don’t like or accept the outcome.”

Although TEAM has the right to appeal, Cooper said the situation seems to be they don’t understand the problem. “It’s not unusual for companies to take it (an adverse ruling) as a learning opportunity and go forward. In this case, TEAM refuses to accept the facts.

“It’s unfortunate that we have to go through the process,” Cooper added.

It could be six to eight months before the case is decided, Cooper said.

 
JULY 24TH, 2007.... TEAM INDUSTRIES LOSES APPEAL !!!!


STATE OF MINNESOTA

IN COURT OF APPEALS

A06-1593



Edward LaBonte,

Respondent,



vs.



TEAM Industries, Inc., et al.,

Appellants.



Filed July 24, 2007

Affirmed

Kalitowski, Judge



Hubbard County District Court

File No. C1-04-238



Stephen W. Cooper, Stacey R. Everson, The Cooper Law Firm, Chartered, Loring Green East, 1201 Yale Place, Suite A100, Minneapolis, MN 55403 (for respondent)



Alec J. Beck, Sara G. Sidwell, Seaton, Beck & Peters, P.A., 7300 Metro Boulevard, Suite 500, Minneapolis, MN 55439 (for appellants)



Considered and decided by Minge, Presiding Judge; Toussaint, Chief Judge; and Kalitowski, Judge.

U N P U B L I S H E D O P I N I O N

KALITOWSKI, Judge

Appellant TEAM Industries, Inc. and its subsidiaries challenge the district court’s conclusions that: (1) appellants discriminated against respondent Edward LaBonte on the basis of age under both disparate impact and disparate treatment theories; (2) respondent was entitled to back and front pay; and (3) respondent was entitled to attorney fees. We affirm.

D E C I S I O N

Appellant TEAM Industries, Inc. and its subsidiary TEAM Industries Park Rapids-DL, Inc. executed a reduction-in-force on April 7, 2003, reducing the employment level at the Park Rapids facility from 230 to 198 workers. Respondent Edward LaBonte, then 60 years of age, was one of the 32 employees discharged.

To aid its decision as to which employees to discharge, appellant created and relied on a forced-ranking tool. Supervisory employees ranked each employee against every other employee based on four factors: performance level, criticality of position, length of service, and promotability. The result was a list of employees from most to least valuable to the facility.

The lowest-ranked 25% of employees were considered for discharge. Three adjustments were made to the list to avoid discharging a husband and wife pair, to account for skills not previously considered, and to negate subjective use of the tool against an employee with whom one supervisor-rater had suspected personal animus. Although respondent’s position on the list varied, he was on the “25% list” and his employment was terminated.

Evidence was introduced at trial regarding a statistical analysis of those employees who were discharged based on use of the tool. The evidence indicated that the employment terminations had an adverse impact on workers over the age of 40 and that the impact increased with increasing age. Nearly 11% of workers older than 40 years of age were discharged, 33.33% of workers older than 50 years of age were discharged, and 62.5% of workers older than 60 years of age were discharged. Evidence at trial indicated that this is statistically significantly different than the expected lay-off population had age not been a factor in selecting workers to discharge.

Respondent brought suit against appellant alleging various employment-termination-related claims including age discrimination. The district court concluded that appellant had discriminated against respondent under both disparate treatment and disparate impact theories, awarded respondent both back and front pay, awarded respondent attorney fees, and denied appellant’s motion for a new trial.

I.

The Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA) prohibits “an employer, except when based on a bona fide occupational qualification, to discriminate as to terms and conditions of employment on the basis of age.” Hamblin v. Alliant Techsystems, Inc., 636 N.W.2d 150, 152 (Minn. App. 2001), review denied (Minn. Feb. 19, 2002); see also Minn. Stat. § 363A.08, subd. 2 (2006).

Age discrimination claims under the MHRA, Minn. Stat. §§ 363A.01-.41 (2006), can be proven by either disparate treatment or disparate impact. See generally Hamblin, 636 N.W.2d 150. Appellant argues that the district court abused its discretion by concluding that respondent proved both theories. We disagree.

1. Disparate Treatment

An MHRA-based disparate-treatment claim may be proven through direct or indirect evidence. Diez v. Minn. Mining & Mfg., 564 N.W.2d 575, 579-80 (1997). Here, the district court found no direct evidence. “When there is no direct evidence of discrimination, [Minnesota courts] analyze age discrimination claims using the burden shifting analysis of McDonnell Douglas.” Hamblin, 636 N.W.2d at 152-53.

The Minnesota Supreme Court explained the McDonnell-Douglas burden-shifting analysis:

To successfully proceed under the MHRA, (1) the plaintiff must establish a prima facie case of discrimination; (2) the burden then shifts to the employer to articulate a nondiscriminatory reason for its action; and (3) the plaintiff must then prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the reason is merely a pretext for discrimination.



Id. at 153.

Prima Facie Case

“The requirements for establishing a prima facie case . . . vary depending on the circumstances involved.” Id. And “establishing a prima facie case . . . is not onerous.” Dietrich v. Canadian Pac. Ltd., 536 N.W.2d 319, 323 (Minn. 1995).

In bona fide reduction-in-force cases, the elements of a prima facie showing are: “(1) that plaintiff is a member of a protected group; (2) that plaintiff sought and was qualified for opportunities that the employer made available to others; (3) that plaintiff, despite [her] qualifications, was denied those opportunities”; and (4) plaintiff provides “additional evidence that age was a factor in termination.” Diez, 564 N.W.2d at 580. The fourth element “may take many forms” and is not intended to be “overly rigid.” Dietrich, 536 N.W.2d at 324.

Circumstantial and statistical evidence can establish a prima facie case. See Hamblin, 636 N.W.2d at 153. “[T]he factually-oriented, case-by-case nature of [age discrimination] claims requires that we not be overly rigid in our consideration of the evidence of discrimination a plaintiff may offer.” Dietrich, 536 N.W.2d at 324 (citing Holley v. Sanyo Mfg., 771 F.2d 1161, 1165-66 (8th Cir. 1985)).

The district court concluded that respondent had made the required prima facie showing: respondent, age 60 at the time of the layoffs, fell within a protected class of people under the MHRA, was qualified for the job from which he was terminated, was discharged due to a reduction in force, and presented additional evidence that age was a factor in the discharge decisions.

Appellant argues that the district court abused its discretion by concluding that respondent met the second prima facie criteria because respondent was not qualified for the job he had held for the past five years. We disagree. Appellant acknowledged that respondent’s employment was not terminated because he was unqualified, but because he ranked lower than other employees on the forced-ranking evaluation tool. Appellant argues that even if respondent was qualified, he was not more qualified than other employees. But being more qualified is not the requirement of the prima facie showing. See Diez, 564 N.W.2d at 580. We conclude that the district court did not abuse its discretion by concluding that respondent was qualified for the job he held with appellant.

Appellant argues that the district court abused its discretion by concluding that respondent satisfied the “additional evidence” requirement of the fourth prima facie prong. As “additional evidence” the district court credited circumstantial and statistical evidence:

The Plaintiff has shown a statistical analysis by his expert witness that concluded that three of the criteria were subjective, age was negatively correlated with the scores for employees on the forced ranking, and that his standard deviation analysis showed age was a factor in the terminations. Additionally, the Defendant’s expert witness, Dr. Coumbe, testified that the forced ranking tool should not be 100% of the basis for an employee’s termination and acknowledged that the criteria of “promotability” should not be used in a termination situation.



Appellant’s argument does not refute any of the district court’s findings, but rather describes how carefully the tool was developed and implemented. Appellant has failed to show any error in the district court’s finding of fact. See State v. Modern Recycling, Inc., 558 N.W.2d 770, 772 (Minn. App. 1997) (holding assignment of error in brief based on “mere assertion” and not supported by argument or authority is waived unless prejudicial error is obvious on mere inspection).

Nondiscriminatory Reason

Because respondent successfully presented a prima facie showing of discrimination, the burden of production in the district court case shifts to appellant to provide a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the termination. Hamblin, 636 N.W.2d at 153. The district court held, and appellant does not dispute, that the reduction in force was a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the termination.



Pretext

Because appellant successfully produced a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason to terminate respondent’s employment, the burden of production in the district court case returns to respondent to show that appellant’s reason is pretext. Id. Appellant challenges the district court’s conclusion that respondent proved pretext through statistical evidence and a showing that appellant relied on the forced-ranking tool’s results inconsistently and subjectively.

Appellant cites the First Circuit as saying that “statistical evidence in a disparate treatment case, in and of itself, rarely suffices to rebut an employer’s legitimate, nondiscriminatory rationale for its decision to dismiss an individual employee.” LeBlanc v. Great Am. Ins. Co., 6 F.3d 836, 848 (1st Cir. 1993). But “[c]ourts have held that statistical evidence regarding employees in the department where a terminated plaintiff formerly worked may support a finding of pretext.” Hamblin, 636 N.W.2d at 153. And “a lack of uniformity in applying ranking criteria is fact evidence as to pretext.” Id. at 154-55.

In Hamblin, the court considered whether a combination of statistical analysis, ageist comments, and lack of uniformity in application of the allegedly nondiscriminatory ranking criteria provided sufficient evidence of pretext. Id. at 153. The court held that

The combination of statistical evidence, evidence of discriminatory corporate culture, and lack of uniformity in [the employer’s] ranking process, along with [the employee’s] sharp drop in ranking, is evidence sufficient to raise an issue of fact as to pretext when the evidence is viewed in the light most favorable to [the employee].



Id. Here, statistical evidence indicates that the forced-ranking tool upon which appellant relied produced disparate results depending on the age of the person to whom it was applied. And the record indicates that appellant manipulated rankings of three employees on the list, resulting in lower rankings for the remaining employees. One employee was re-rated because of a suspected personality conflict with the rating supervisor and rose in ranking afterwards, indicating that the tool was subjectively used. We conclude that the district court did not abuse its discretion by concluding that the statistical data and evidence regarding the inconsistent and subjective manner in which the ranking tool was applied satisfied respondent’s showing of pretext.

Accordingly, we conclude that the district court did not abuse its discretion by concluding that appellant subjected respondent to disparate treatment on the basis of age under the MHRA.

2. Disparate Impact

“Disparate impact claims are expressly recognized under the Minnesota Human Rights Act.” Id. at 155.

To establish a prima facie case, the plaintiff must prove that an employment practice is responsible for a statistically significant adverse impact on a particular class of persons protected by [the MHRA]. Once this burden is met, an employer must justify that practice by demonstrating that the practice is manifestly related to the job or significantly furthers an important business purpose. If the practice is justified, the plaintiff must demonstrate the existence of a comparably effective practice that the court finds would cause a significantly lesser adverse impact on the identified protected class.



Id. (citations and quotations omitted).

Prima Facie Case

To make a prima facie showing of disparate impact, respondent was required to show that a particular employment practice adversely affected a group of people protected by the MHRA. Id. Appellant argues that the district court abused its discretion by concluding that respondent made such showing. Appellant TEAM Industries Park Rapids-DL, Inc. operates two facilities and both underwent reductions in force at the same time. Appellant argues that if the statistics for both facilities are combined, they do not show that older workers were adversely impacted by the layoffs.

Although both facilities are owned by the same TEAM subsidiary and share some management personnel, the rankings were performed at each plant by supervisors at that plant. Respondent was grouped with and compared to other employees at the Park Rapids facility alone, not with employees from both facilities. And we have cited the United States Supreme Court’s rejection of such a “bottom-line” analysis with approval in Novack v. Northwest Airlines, Inc., 525 N.W.2d 592, 599 (Minn. App. 1995). In rejecting the “bottom-line” analysis, the Court held that an employer “may not defend the alleged discriminatory practice on the basis that the members of the protected class are adequately represented at the employer’s ‘bottom-line.’” Id. (citing Connecticut v. Teal, 457 U.S. 440, 441-42, 102 S. Ct. 2525, 2528 (1982)). Appellant’s “bottom-line” argument is similarly unpersuasive. We conclude that the decision to consider only the Park Rapids data is not an abuse of the district court’s broad discretion.

Because we conclude that the district court did not abuse its discretion by considering only the Park Rapids data and that data showed disparate treatment was afforded protected workers, we conclude that the district court did not abuse its discretion by concluding that respondent made a prima facie showing of disparate impact discrimination.

Appellant also argues that the small sample size of those employees losing their jobs leads to faulty statistical analysis. While this is true regarding samples, the statistics analyzed here represent the entire population of employees at the facility and not merely a sampling of that population. Therefore, the results of the analysis are not only representative of the population, but are accurate descriptions of the population. Business Purpose

Because respondent made a prima facie showing of disparate impact discrimination, the burden of production at trial shifted to appellant to show that the employment practice, namely the use of the forced-ranking tool, “is manifestly related to the job or significantly furthers an important business purpose.” Hamblin, 636 N.W.2d at 155.

Appellant argues that if the selection tool “directly measures a skill needed for the job,” appellant may avoid liability even if the selection tool has a disparate impact on a protected class. The district court concluded that, although the subjective forced-ranking tool furthered the legitimate goals of the employer, it did not significantly further the goals. The district court concluded that “[t]he tool was of questionable validity and utility with all of its exceptions, inconsistencies, and discriminatory effect.”

Although appellant correctly cites Novack as stating that the employer need not prove that the selection criteria is “absolutely, manifestly related to the job,” it fails to include the very next sentence which states that “to be justified as a business necessity, a practice must directly relate to a[n] . . . employee’s ability to perform the job effectively.” Novack, 525 N.W.2d at 598 (quotation omitted). Evidence at trial indicated that the forced-ranking tool here is not directly related to an employee’s ability to perform the job effectively. According to performance reviews, respondent was performing the job effectively at the time his employment was terminated. Instead, there is evidence in the record that the tool was applied subjectively and inconsistently, returning different results based on the person performing the rating, and was susceptible to adjustments to correct for disfavored outcomes. Although appellant relied on the tool while making necessary layoff decisions, we conclude that the district court did not abuse its discretion by concluding that the tool is neither a business necessity nor manifestly job-related.

Alternative Practice

Because the district court correctly decided that appellant had not carried its burden of production to show that the forced-ranking tool was either a business necessity or manifestly job-related, respondent did not need to demonstrate “the existence of a comparably effective practice that . . . would cause a significantly lesser adverse impact on the identified protected class.” See Hamblin, 636 N.W.2d at 155.

Accordingly, we conclude that the district court did not abuse its discretion by determining that appellant had discriminated against respondent on the basis of age under a disparate impact theory.



II.

Front and back pay are actual damages compensable under the MHRA. Minn. Stat. § 363A.29, subd. 5(1); Ray v. Miller Meester Advertising, Inc., 684 N.W.2d 404, 407 (Minn. 2004). “The potentially speculative nature of front pay awards is limited by the plaintiff’s duty to mitigate damages.” Ray, 684 N.W.2d at 406.

Appellant argues that the district court clearly erred by finding that respondent mitigated his damages prior to trial because respondent failed to accept appellant’s offer to reapply for a job with appellant. “Generally, in a wrongful discharge case, if the employer offers in good faith to reemploy the discharged employee in the same or similar capacity at the same salary, the employee’s failure to accept the offer mitigates the damages for which the employer is liable.” Feges v. Perkins Restaurants, Inc., 483 N.W.2d 701, 709 (Minn. 1992). “However, the employee is not required to accept the position if doing so would be offensive or degrading.” Id.

We conclude that the district court did not clearly err by finding that respondent had not failed to mitigate damages by not applying for positions with appellant. The record indicates that (1) appellant did not offer respondent a job, only an opportunity to apply for a job; (2) appellant did not provide specific information regarding which positions were available; and (3) appellant did not offer positions in respondent’s area of expertise.

Appellant argues that the district court clearly erred by finding that respondent used reasonable diligence in securing substitute employment. Appellant cites cases in which displaced employees sent out approximately 1,000 resumes to support its argument that respondent, who applied for only 10-12 jobs in 19 months, did not conduct a reasonable job search. But respondent was 60 years old, had limited skills, and lived in Park Rapids. Respondent eventually accepted employment with Home Depot. Although appellant argues that respondent should have secured new employment within two months, the district court is in the best position to evaluate the local job opportunities for a person in respondent’s situation. We conclude that the district court did not clearly err.

Appellant argues that the district court abused its discretion in calculating respondent’s damages because respondent did not accept an eventual offer to apply for full-time employment at Home Depot, but instead remained a part-time employee there. Appellant argues that full-time employment wages should be imputed to respondent and the award of damages accordingly reduced. Respondent testified that he had begun working part-time at Home Depot seven months before the trial began and was asked to apply for full-time employment only three months before the trial began. He testified that with the trial date approaching, bringing unknown demands on his time, and because part-time employees enjoyed more scheduling freedom than full-time employees, he chose to remain a part-time employee rather than apply for a full-time position. When asked whether full-time work remained available, respondent answered that he did not know; Home Depot maintained a certain level of full-time employees and he did not know whether that quota was full. However, he testified that summer was the busiest time of year for Home Depot and working hours were typically reduced in the off-season. The trial was held for five days in June, five days in July, and two days in August. Other than eliciting brief testimony from its expert that respondent’s failure to apply for a full-time position with Home Depot did not reflect behavior of a serious job-seeker, appellant did not provide testimony to support its argument that full-time income should be imputed to respondent. On this record, we conclude that the district court did not abuse its discretion in calculating the back-pay award.

Appellant argues that the district court abused its discretion by awarding respondent five years of front pay. Appellant contends that five years after the trial, respondent would be 68 years old and that no evidence was presented to support the district court’s decision that respondent would work that long. But appellant does not provide more than speculation that respondent would retire before the age of 68. See Modern Recycling, Inc., 558 N.W.2d at 772. We conclude that the district court did not abuse its discretion by awarding five years of front pay.

III.

The MHRA provides that reasonable attorney fees may be awarded to a prevailing party. Minn. Stat. § 363A.33, subd. 7. The district court’s award of attorney fees and costs will not be disturbed absent an abuse of discretion. Becker v. Alloy Hardfacing & Eng’g Co., 401 N.W.2d 655, 661 (Minn. 1987). “The district court may determine which party, if any, qualifies as a prevailing party when considering a request for costs incurred.” Benigni v. County of St. Louis, 585 N.W.2d 51, 54-55 (Minn. 1998) (citing In re Gershcow’s Will, 261 N.W.2d 355, 340 (Minn. 1977)). Here, the district court determined that respondent was the prevailing party; it determined that appellant had discriminated against respondent and awarded respondent $254,250 in front and back pay. We do not agree with appellant that the damages award is “relatively small,” “nominal,” and unworthy of an attorney fees award.

“The reasonable value of counsel’s work is a question of fact and [appellate courts] must uphold the district court’s findings on that issue unless they are clearly erroneous.” Amerman v. Lakeland Dev. Corp., 295 Minn. 536, 537, 203 N.W.2d 400, 400-01 (1973). Here, the district court made particularized findings of most of the Paulson factors, including which attorneys and staff to reimburse, the amount of time to be reimbursed, and the reasonable hourly fee to be assessed. State by Head v. Paulson, 290 Minn. 371, 373, 188 N.W.2d 424, 426 (Minn. 1971) (“Absent any statutory limitations, allowances should be made with due regard for all relevant circumstances, including the time and labor required; the nature and difficulty of the responsibility assumed; the amount involved and the results obtained; the fees customarily charged for similar legal services; the experience, reputation, and ability of counsel; and the fee arrangement existing between counsel and the client.”).

Appellant argues that the fee should at least be reduced because respondent was not successful on all of his claims. Minnesota courts have supported reduced attorney fee requests discounting the part expended on unsuccessful claims that are unrelated to the successful claims. See Specialized Tours, Inc. v. Hagen, 392 N.W.2d 520, 542-43 (Minn. 1986). Appellant argues that respondent’s claims of mental anguish and emotional distress were unsuccessful and should not be included in the attorney fee award. But those claims are not unrelated to the successful claim of age discrimination. All of respondent’s claims relate to respondent’s discharge from employment with appellant. And the district court discounted two associate attorneys’ fees. Whereas the attorneys requested $276,281.79 in fees, the district court disallowed the associates’ fees and awarded only $212,534.00.

Respondent succeeded on his discrimination claim and received back and front pay. The claims on which he was not successful were related to those upon which he was successful, and the district court considered the Paulson factors and reduced the requested attorney fee award. We conclude that the district court did not abuse its discretion in its award of attorney fees.

Affirmed.


 
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