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Judge: Olmsted County social worker's discrimination claim shouldn't be limited

Wilhelmina Jacob, a 20-year county employee, filed a lawsuit against the county in April, alleging younger, less qualified, white applicants have been given jobs she sought. She also claims a 2021 work reassignment adversely affected her employment status.

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ROCHESTER — A Winona County judge says it’s too early to limit the scope of a civil lawsuit filed by an Olmsted County social worker.

“Only time and discovery will reveal the true nature of these acts,” Third Judicial District Court Judge Mary Leahy wrote in a response to Olmsted County’s request to limit the case to allegations of discrimination that occurred within a year of when the lawsuit was filed. “This is why dismissal of the suit or any of Plaintiff’s claims as ‘time barred’ under the statute of limitations would be inappropriate and is denied.”

Wilhelmina Jacob, a 20-year county employee, filed a lawsuit in April against the county , alleging younger, less qualified, white applicants have been given jobs she sought. She also claims a 2021 work reassignment adversely affected her employment status.

Jacobs, who remains on county staff, alleges she was passed over for promotions in 2005, 2017 and 2019, but Jenny Gassman-Pines, an attorney with the Minneapolis-based Greene Espel law firm that represents Olmsted County, asked Leahy to bar such claims from the lawsuit, citing a one-year statute of limitations, which would limit the scope of Jacob’s lawsuit.

A 2019 claim Jacob filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission also ended with a one-year opportunity to sue the county in connection with the allegations, but Leahy said the federal one-year notice doesn’t stop Jacob from seeking action at the state level.

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“There was no concurrent charge of discrimination filed with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights and no investigation was done by that agency,” the judge wrote in her recent ruling.

Related to the one-year statute of limitations, Leahy said Jacob’s allegations are spread throughout a broader timeframe, so the one-year limit might not be appropriate, if her attorney, Sandra Smalley-Fleming of the Minneapolis-based Fredrickson and Byron law firm, can show there has been a series of connected discriminatory acts.

“Plaintiff must show that as a part of her claim of a continuing pattern of discriminatory actions that there was at least ‘one incident of discrimination (that) occurred within the limitations period’ applicable in the case,” Leahy wrote.

She said further review of Jacob’s employment history will have the potential to reveal whether she experienced continued discrimination or whether individual decisions by county staff were discreet acts.

The case is moving forward with attorneys in the process of exchanging information about the witnesses and evidence they plan to present at trial.

The process known as “discovery” could continue through May 5, 2023, with a trial scheduled for Oct. 2, 2023.

Randy Petersen joined the Post Bulletin in 2014 and became the local government reporter in 2017. An Elkton native, he's worked for a variety of Midwest papers as reporter, photographer and editor since graduating from Winona State University in 1996. Readers can reach Randy at 507-285-7709 or rpetersen@postbulletin.com.
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