THE MINNESOTA SUPREME COURT’S MEASURED APPROACH TO ITS POWER

This month, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that an employee’s “good faith” whistleblowing no longer needs to be done with the purpose of exposing an illegal act. James Friedlander v. Edwards Lifesciences, LLC et al., __N.W.2d__, A16-1916 (Minn. Aug. 9, 2017).

Under the Minnesota Whistleblower Act (Minn. Stat. §§ 181.931–.935 (2016)), an employee that complains about an employer’s alleged actions needs to make such reports under the “good faith” standard. It also prevents an employer from terminating an employee for “blowing the whistle.” Prior to 2013, courts have interpreted that rather ambiguous standard to mean both an analysis of the purpose of the disclosure and the conduct. The purpose of the disclosure needed to be for the exposure of an illegality. Obst v. Microtron, Inc., 614 N.W.2d 196, 202 (Minn. 2000).

Now, under Friedlander, the standard is as the legislature defined it after the 2013 amendment. We look to conduct that does not constitute statements or disclosures knowing that they are false or that they are in reckless disregard for the truth. §§ 181.931, subdiv. 4; & 181.932, subdiv. 3.

What the Minnesota Supreme Court did here was significant aside from its impact on a piece of litigation. Edwards Lifesciences arguably urged the court to expand its authority vis-à-vis the state legislature. Edwards Lifesciences argued that the old judicial rule from Obst supplemented the later 2013 amendment to the Whistleblower Act.

Friedlander argued that since the state legislature amended a statute to include a once absent definition, the legislature’s amendment had the effect of abrogating the Minnesota Supreme Court’s prior interpretation under Obst. The Court agreed with Friedlander, refusing to rewrite the 2013 amendment based on a case it handed down in 2000.

Friedlander was arguing for a limited application of the Court’s power, while Edwards Lifesciences argued for its expansive application. The Court, always preoccupied with its own power, made clear that “[w]hen [the Minnesota Supreme Court has] interpreted a statute, ‘[the Minnesota Supreme Court’s] interpretation becomes part of the statute.’” Friedlander, __N.W.2d__ (Minn. 2017) (quoting Karl v. Uptown Drink, LLC, 835 N.W.2d 14, 17 (Minn. 2013). In making this statement, the Court made clear that Friedlander does not stand for the proposition that the Court’s statutory interpretation powers are changing. If anything, it is maintaining the status quo.

The Court was correct when it stated that “for the 2013 amendment’s definition of ‘good faith’ to have effect and to change the law, it must be interpreted to have changed the Obst definition of ‘good faith.’” Friedlander, __N.W.2d__ (Minn. 2017). This is true because it is the purview of the Court to interpret a statute—not rewrite it. When a legislature does rewrite its laws, the Court must yield to the plain language the legislature selected. In this case, the definition does not include the purpose inquiry to the “good faith” definition that was once judicially mandated.

The Court’s opinion is in conformity with basic separation of powers principles. The Court was certain to express that its interpretation of a statute becomes part of the statute—but only insomuch as there is no conflict or frustration of legislative purpose when the legislature amends a law.

 

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