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.

A horse with no claim

October 04, 2013 - by: Brian Kurtz 0 COMMENTS
Brian Kurtz

Some colorful (ahem) corners of the Internet were abuzz this week after a report surfaced that an anonymous adult male fan of the cartoon show My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic was fired from his job after admitting his fandom to his coworkers. The firing of this “brony” (and let’s just assume for the sake of this post the story is true) prompted questions about the limits of employee workplace protections. Did this man’s termination violate his right to free expression?  Answered simply, no. This episode is a useful reminder of the limits of constitutional protections in the private-sector workplace and the viability of at-will employment.  

The First Amendment guarantees that our rights to freedom of speech and expression are shielded from state action. Private sector employers, however, are not state actors. A 2007 federal district court decision unambiguously held that “the protections guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution don’t extend to private-sector employees.” Simple, right? Well, maybe not always. Employers should be aware that some states have their own laws or provisions in their state constitutions that transpose First Amendment-like protections into private workplaces.

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Moneyball tips on letting less productive players go

September 15, 2013 - by: Matt Gilley 0 COMMENTS
Matt Gilley

Part of our mission here is to keep all you bibliophiles out there engaged and entertained. (I happen to be one, so I know we’re a rare breed.) Our book today is Michael Lewis’ Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. read more…

Fire all the “cripples” and the “fatties?!”

August 30, 2013 - by: Kristin Starnes Gray 0 COMMENTS
Kristin Starnes Gray

As I mentioned in my July post, the film Horrible Bosses has enough material for weeks’ worth of blog posts. With three atrocious bosses blatantly making the lives of their employees miserable and disregarding a long list of employment laws, it is certainly a plaintiffs’ attorney’s dream situation and an HR manager’s nightmare. I am sure the upcoming sequel will be full of blog material as well. This week, I turn my attention to the antics of Bobby Pellitt (Colin Farrell), the cocaine-addicted son of business owner Jack Pellitt.

Unfortunately, when his kindly, family-oriented, and environmentally conscious father suddenly dies, Bobby is left to run the business. As it turns out, Bobby’s business approach includes snorting as much cocaine as possible, having his own harem of prostitutes present at the office at all times, disregarding necessary safety precautions for hazardous materials, and firing all the “cripples” and the “fatties.” Bobby even starts calling one wheelchair-bound employee “Professor Xavier” of X-Men fame. According to Bobby, “Roaming around all day in his special little secret chair, I know he’s up to something.”

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