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Triumph for Workers' Rights Clinic

The University of Minnesota Law School’s Workers’ Rights Clinic recently received word that it had prevailed on a motion in the case of Mitchell v. American Crystal Sugar and its client’s case would proceed to trial in federal court.

In an order issued May 31, 2007, U.S. District Judge Patrick J. Schiltz denied American Crystal’s motion for summary judgment with respect to the plaintiff’s claims of sex discrimination and constructive discharge, dismissing only the retaliation claim. Clinical Professor Lisa C. Stratton led the clinic’s team, which consisted of Student Director Darren Sharp, Geneva Finn, Sarah Schwenker (all class of 2007), Chris Amundsen, and Lauren Wood (both class of 2008). (Chris Amundsen and Lauren Wood will serve as student directors next year).

The case centered on two demotions and subsequent intense supervision of the plaintiff, Charlotte Mitchell, after more than 25 years with American Crystal Sugar Company, a sugar beet processing plant in East Grand Forks, Minnesota. Humiliation resulting from management’s treatment of Mitchell created an intolerable work environment and prompted her to take a medical leave in 2005. She brought sex-discrimination and retaliation claims against her employer under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Minnesota Human Rights Act.

American Crystal claimed that Mitchell was demoted due to unsatisfactory work performance and that she failed to offer a reasonable opportunity to remedy the working conditions she found intolerable.

Over the years, Mitchell had filed three grievances alleging sex discrimination and sexual harassment and claimed repeated write-ups were harassing because they were due to inadequate training on new job responsibilities. She attached a signed letter of support from other employees defending her performance and citing widespread lack of understanding of the newly implemented system. After her first demotion, from “pulp dryer fireman,” Mitchell (the first woman to hold the position) filed a grievance maintaining she was held to a double standard on performance and demoted because she was a woman. Within nine months, she was demoted again.

The team found that managers told conflicting stories about Mitchell’s demotions. Some said the plaintiff’s supervisor had made the decision and his superiors merely signed off on it. The company failed to investigate conditions leading up to Mitchell’s demotions, and disciplinary action for Mitchell was more severe than for a male counterpart experiencing similar job incidents. Employees reported evidence of the supervisor’s discriminatory attitude, including remarks that the position Mitchell held was “not a woman’s job” and that “a woman belongs at home, not in a factory.”

Most of the “legwork” was done by the students, including locating potential witnesses, taking down their accounts of the situation, and seeing that the statements were signed under oath to avoid dismissal as hearsay. These responsibilities required special determination in this case. Some employees had left American Crystal and had to be tracked down. A key witness had lost his house in a fire and was found in a treatment facility. However, after his discharge, he dropped out of sight and the students and their client had to search for him once again. The 325-mile drive to the plant’s location in northwestern Minnesota added an extra degree of difficulty, particularly in blustery winter weather.

But the students and their client persevered. The students compiled statements from multiple witnesses to corroborate the plaintiff’s claims and reveal a pattern of discrimination. Sharp, who acted as a junior partner in overseeing the work of the student attorneys, wrote and argued a motion asking the federal court to force American Crystal to turn over personnel files of male employees to Mitchell’s lawyers so they could compare performance records. He also took the deposition of the supervisor who said that women belong at home. The entire team spent weeks writing a compelling defending brief.

Professor Stratton, a 1993 magna cum laude graduate of the Law School, has special expertise in the areas of discrimination and hostility toward women in nontraditional jobs. On behalf of the entire team, she gratefully acknowledges congratulatory messages from the Minneapolis Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s senior trial attorney and other employment lawyers.

 

Seated left to right: Student Director Darren Sharp ('07), Professor Lisa Stratton, and Geneva Finn ('08); standing: Lauren Wood and Chris Amundsen (both class of '08).