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Decision clears the way for state workers to challenge job reviews

When it comes to the topic of performance reviews, many employees in both the public and private sector are decidedly ambivalent. On the one hand, a strong performance review could help cement a pay raise or bonus, or even serve as something of a career catapult. On the other hand, a poor performance review could result in frozen wages or even career stagnation.

This latter scenario becomes all the more frustrating if a poor performance review is either incomplete or based on erroneous information.

Thanks to a recent decision by the Minnesota Supreme Court, however, the state’s roughly 350,000-member workforce now has a legally recognized mechanism through which to challenge these types of performance reviews.

The case in question arose out of Steele County, where an officer with the sheriff’s department sought to challenge a poor performance review he received in 2012 on the grounds that it was based on information that was incomplete and incorrect.

When his initial efforts were rebuffed by the sheriff’s department, he filed an appeal with the Minnesota Department of Administration under the Data Practices Act, the state’s government records law. Specifically, he referenced a provision of the law indicating that an individual who is the subject of the data “may contest the accuracy or completeness of public or private data.”

However, this appeal was denied by the department on the grounds that performance reviews cannot be challenged based on accuracy or completeness of data owing to the fact that they are based purely on opinions and subjective evaluations.

The matter ultimately made it before the Minnesota Supreme Court, where the court rejected the conclusion of the department in a first-of-its-kind decision.

Here, the court concluded that opinions are indeed based on facts capable of being proven accurate or inaccurate. By way of illustration, the court pointed out how the officer’s poor performance review indicated that a contributing factor was his failure to follow through with a request by a superior to establish a field training program, something the officer claims he was never asked to do.

The case was remanded to an administrative law judge for a final determination.

While the real impact of the decision remains unclear, many are hopeful that the decision will result in greater protection for state workers.

“These evaluations are very important because they can result in promotions or demotions. If you’re on the wrong side of them it can feel like they’re papering a file,” said the attorney representing the officer. “This provides a forum to dispute those things, which may not otherwise exist.”

It also remains unclear as to whether Minnesota lawmakers will seek to change this ability of state workers to challenge poor performance reviews under the Data Practices Act during the upcoming legislative session, something the Court held they were permitted to do.

If you feel that your employee rights have been violated in some capacity — discrimination, retaliation, sexual harassment — consider speaking with an experienced legal professional as soon as possible.

Source: The Star Tribune, “Court: Public workers can challenge job evaluations under data law,” Abby Simons, Aug. 6, 2014

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