Punter’s legal claims may be blocked

January 10, 2014 - by: Andy Tanick 3 COMMENTS
Andy Tanick

When they asked me to join the rotation of writers for Ford Harrison’s EntertainHR blog, I was a little nervous. After all, while we Minnesotans make headlines for things like our weather (the high temperature here last Monday was 13 degrees below zero) and electing professional wrestlers to high political office, we haven’t had a juicy HR story up here since Lou Grant paid Mary Richards less than her male colleague Murray because she didn’t have a family to support. And that was fictional. Then it happened, just as my deadline was fast approaching: the Deadspin.com headline, dateline Minneapolis. “I was an NFL Player until I Was Fired by Two Cowards and a Bigot.” Thank you, Chris Kluwe.  As both an employment law attorney and the newly crowned champion of my fantasy football league, I might just be qualified to write about this. For those who haven’t heard, Kluwe was the Minnesota Vikings’ punter for eight years, until the team released him in May 2013. In the fall of 2012, Kluwe had become a media sensation due to his outspoken opposition to a proposed amendment to the Minnesota Constitution that would have defined marriage as “only a union of one man and one woman.” Many observers gave Kluwe part of the credit for the eventual defeat of that proposed constitutional amendment, which would have prevented the Minnesota legislature from legalizing same-sex marriage. Just a few months later, the legislature–encouraged by the defeat of the proposed constitutional amendment–did just that.football Now, Kluwe claims the Vikings “fired” him because of the allegedly homophobic views of his Special Teams Coach (the “bigot”) and the alleged failure of his Head Coach and General Manager (the “two cowards”) to stand up to those views. To nobody’s surprise, he has also announced that he’s hired a lawyer. And pundits, fans, and observers everywhere are asking the same question: “Is Kluwe going to sue the Vikings?” While at first glance it certainly seems like Kluwe’s claims, if proven, would support some claim under federal or state law, it’s actually not all that clear. Let’s take a look at the most likely legal theories. Discrimination? Not really. Kluwe doesn’t claim that the Vikings cut him because he belongs to any protected class. He doesn’t profess to be gay himself–indeed, he has stated that he is not, and his wife would likely corroborate that. A more likely legal theory would be retaliation. State and federal discrimination laws prohibit employers from taking adverse action against an employee because the employee engaged in “protected activity.” Protected activity in this context means either opposing a practice believed to violate those same discrimination laws, or participating in an employment discrimination proceeding. Kluwe never did the latter, so he would have to prove the former: that the Vikings released him because he opposed a practice prohibited under state or federal discrimination laws. As Kluwe describes it himself, however, the Vikings replaced him because he supported marriage equality, not because he opposed anything prohibited by anti-discrimination laws. Certainly, by supporting same-sex marriage, Kluwe was implicitly opposing the state law that, at the time, banned such unions. But opposing an existing law that some believe to be discriminatory isn’t really the same as opposing a practice or act that is specifically forbidden by civil rights laws, e.g., employment discrimination, sexual harassment, failing to accommodate a disabled employee, etc. What about Kluwe’s right to free speech, you may ask. The Vikings couldn’t fire the man just for speaking his mind on a highly charged political issue, could they? Well, actually, yes, they could.  Despite what TV and radio pundits might think, the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech doesn’t apply to private employers such as a football team. While the law protects some types of speech, such as organizing a union, most speech by private employees is not protected. Indeed, exercising their nonexistent right to “free speech” has been the downfall of many employees. Chris Kluwe, of course, was not a typical “at will” employee; as an NFL player, he belonged to a union, and it’s possible (albeit unlikely) that his union’s collective bargaining agreement protects players from being released due to their political statements. But even if that were the case, Kluwe would probably have to pursue his claim initially through a union grievance, not a lawsuit. Plaintiff’s employment lawyers, of course, are nothing if not creative, and win or lose, Kluwe’s case would provide his lawyer with a lot of irresistible free publicity. And many people would find it objectionable if the Vikings really did let Kluwe go because of his political views. But being a victim of an unfair employment practice, no matter how troubling, doesn’t necessarily translate into having an actionable legal claim. So while Chris Kluwe’s situation may have saved this new blogger from having to write about Minnesota weather for the time being, when it comes to legal action, Kluwe may be forced to … punt.

 Page 2 of 2 « 1  2