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Olmsted County discrimination case continues to unfold

Attorneys asked the judge for ruling on process issues related to social worker's claims.

Downtown Rochester Minnesota
The City-County government center in downtown Rochester on Friday, July 1, 2022.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin
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ROCHESTER — The scope of an Olmsted County social worker’s allegations of age, racial and gender discrimination took center stage Wednesday.

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.

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While Aaron Knoll of the Minneapolis-based Greene Espel Law Firm said the claim, tied to a 2019 discrimination compliant with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, has expired, Jacob’s attorney said the earlier claim serves as support for the lawsuit, rather than grounds.

“The adverse employment was in September 2021,” Sandra Smalley-Fleming of the Minneapolis-based Fredrickson & Byron Law Firm, told Third Judicial District Court Judge Mary Leahy during a hearing Wednesday.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission didn’t provide a ruling on the 2019 claim, which was also submitted to the Minnesota Department of Human Rights.

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Jacob’s lawsuit claims she was demoted in September 2021 when her job duties and supervisor changed.

Knoll, representing the county, said the job change doesn’t rise to the level of adverse employment required for a discrimination case, since Jacob maintained her job title and pay, which has increased over the years.

“These are facts that are not disputed,” he told Leahy, asking her to order Jacob to confirm them, since they were not specifically outlined in her complaint.

Smalley said such a response is not required at this point in the case, especially since Jacob is seeking added information from the county to help define her claim.

She asked Leahy to order the case to progress with a sharing of requested information from both sides, rather than ordering Jacob to reply similar requests for county responses are on hold. She said attorneys would have typically shared any required information related to the case in July, if the county hadn’t opted to seek a delay. .

“They didn’t move to dismiss our complaint,” she told Leahy. “They didn’t have the grounds to dismiss our complaint.”

Jenny Gassman-Pines of the Greene Espel Law Firm said the county believes it does have grounds to ask the judge to require a better understanding of the complaint before moving forward. She said the lawsuit cites a variety of claims, but if it’s based on the 2021 action, that would narrow the focus of information gathering.

Smalley said narrowing the scope of the complaint doesn’t mean past actions can be ignored.

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“She has the ability to raise those facts as continuing violations,” she said, pointing to allegations that a series of actions has led to adverse work conditions.

She said reference to the continued action shouldn’t be blocked by a state-imposed time limit on court action related to the 2019 complaint, since the action directly leading to the lawsuit occurred in 2021.

Leahy said she’ll consider the arguments related to whether Jacob should be compelled to confirm that her job title and pay has not reduced in recent years, as well as other issues that could guide the course of the lawsuit. She said she'll make a decision soon.

Another hearing related to the case is scheduled for October and seeks to address other issues related to the process.

In addition to the county, Jacob’s lawsuit names County Administrator Heidi Welsch, Deputy Administrator Travis Gransee and Human Resources Director Julian Currie as parties related to their official roles within county government.

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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