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Harrell v. Handi Medical Supply, Inc.

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

April 9, 2019

Tracy Harrell, Plaintiff- Appellant,
Handi Medical Supply, Inc., Defendant-Appellee.

          Submitted: October 17, 2018

          Appeal from United States District Court for the District of Minnesota - Minneapolis

          Before WOLLMAN, COLLOTON, and BENTON, Circuit Judges.


         Tracy Harrell brought this action against her former employer, Handi Medical Supply, Inc., alleging violations of the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA) and the Family Medical and Leave Act (FMLA). The district court[1] granted summary judgment in favor of Handi on all claims. Harrell appeals the dismissal of only two claims under the MHRA. Without deciding whether the district court's rationale was correct, we conclude that the judgment should be affirmed on alternative grounds.


         As the case was resolved on summary judgment, we recite the facts in the light most favorable to Harrell. Handi Medical is a medical equipment company located in St. Paul, Minnesota. The company employed Harrell as a Lead Customer Service Representative from 2012 until 2015. In 2013, the company approved Harrell for intermittent leave under the FMLA, and she used the leave to support her husband, who suffers from severe bipolar disorder.

         On August 5, 2015, Handi Medical's management called a meeting to announce temporary changes to its customer service department. The changes required Harrell to accept a demotion in stature by assuming responsibilities of a customer service representative.

         Harrell left the meeting and returned to her desk. She sent an e-mail to her husband that said, "I really need to talk to you, I am upset." She then called her husband; he became angry and threatened to come to the company's offices to talk to the chief executive officer about the changes.

         Harrell became worried about her husband and asked to take FMLA leave for the afternoon. Human resources director Julie Peterson approved the request. Harrell then returned to her desk, swung her identification badge around her hand, and threw the badge in her purse. Co-workers reported that as Harrell prepared to leave, she said she "has had it with this place" and cursed loudly within earshot of customers. When a co-worker asked Harrell a work-related question, Harrell responded, "You are going to need to talk to [another manager]. I am done. I got to go. I am done right now." She then departed.

         Harrell's co-workers reported her conduct to human resources director Peterson and the company's chief operating officer, Scott Learned. Learned interviewed two more employees about the incident, and then reported it to chief executive officer Mike Bailey. In response, Bailey prepared a written warning for Harrell, saying that the reported behavior would not be tolerated, and that failure to observe workplace rules would result in further discipline, including termination.

         On August 11, Bailey summoned Harrell to meet with him and Learned, and Bailey issued the written warning. He explained that he was taking the action in response to her conduct on August 5, and admonished her that it was unacceptable to curse and complain in front of customers and other employees. Harrell disputed that she used profanity and refused to sign the document acknowledging the discussion. She explained that she left the office frantically on August 5 because she was worried about her husband. Bailey responded that it always seemed like she had an excuse. Harrell then accused Bailey of using her husband's disability against her. Bailey asked Harrell why she would tell her husband about the organizational changes if she knew that the information would upset him.

         At this point, Peterson and another manager joined the meeting. Bailey allegedly "got red-faced," moved his chair toward Harrell, pointed at her, and asked whether she was accusing him of using her husband's disability against her. Harrell responded that she felt that way because Bailey was accusing her of acting unprofessionally after going home due to FMLA leave. Bailey then told her never to accuse him of discriminating against her because of her husband's condition.

         After more discussion, Bailey decided that if Harrell "truly felt that way that she was describing that she would be better off working elsewhere." According to Harrell, company officials observed that she and her family were unhappy, and said that "maybe we should-can find an exit strategy when Scott [Learned] returns." As Harrell left the meeting, she muttered Handi's motto-"enriching lives"-in a disparaging way. Upon hearing that ...

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