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Pro-Trump Views Allegedly Spur Law Firm Firings, Bring Lawsuit

June 10, 2021, 8:30 PM

Three Minnesota attorneys who say they were fired for questioning the dismissal of a colleague over pro-Trump views have filed suit against their former firm.

The three attorneys—William Kain, Margaret Henehan, and Kelsey Quarberg—claim their termination was illegal under state law. Their firing came about, they allege, because they told the firm’s managing partner he had violated Minnesota statutes by terminating a colleague for expressing pro-Trump views on social media.

Their June 7 suit targets Kain & Scott, a bankruptcy-focused firm with nine offices spread throughout Minnesota, and the managing partner, Wesley Scott.

Employment lawyers in Minnesota take differing views of the merits of the complaint, with one suggesting it misreads who is subject to the political activity reprisal law, and another saying that statute appears to be applicable.

“There’s potential merit there,” said Lawrence Schaefer of Schaefer Halleen in Minneapolis, who represents individuals in employment discrimination cases.

The plaintiffs claim that Scott on April 13 sent a firm-wide email suggesting that participants in the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riot were “traitors” and should have been shot. Scott told the firm’s operations manager, Liz Norby, to fire two firm employees because they were racist, the three lawyers allege.

Scott based his belief about the two employees on social media posts that were pro-Trump and which stated, “I support the police,” according to the complaint.

Norby refused to fire the two employees and was then forced by Scott to resign, the plaintiffs allege. Scott then fired one of the two employees he had initially targeted, Shayla Pikula, they allege.

The three attorneys, Kain, Henehan, and Quarberg, say they then confronted Scott, telling him he violated a state law to prevent terminations “because of that individual’s or association’s political contributions or political activity.”

Scott apologized and quit the firm April 14. But a day later, he withdrew his resignation and fired the three attorneys, the complaint states.

Scott didn’t return email and voicemail requests for comment. It’s unclear if he has retained an attorney. He hasn’t yet filed a response to the three attorneys’ complaint.

The plaintiffs’ attorney, Scott Payzant of Morrison Sund, emphasized that his clients weren’t fired because they were Trump supporters, but rather “because they called out Scott for trying to fire employees who were Trump supporters.”

Payzant said the complaint has merit because Kain & Scott could have been technically classified as a corporation. The partners “were treated as employees and paid as employees for their work, but they also had an ownership interest via shares in the firm,” he said.

An employment lawyer in the state said the fundamental claim in the complaint may be tough to prove because there’s “no such thing” as protected political beliefs in Minnesota, unlike, say, in California.

“The plaintiffs tried to shoehorn political beliefs into their complaint,” said Kate Bischoff, an employment law adviser in Minnesota.

Bischoff said she wondered if Scott had additional corroborating evidence that the employee he fired was racist. Racist statements on social media, and other forms of hate speech, could alone be valid grounds for firing, she said.

Schaefer said that he believes the complaint is likely to at least survive a motion to dismiss.

The plaintiffs’ unlawful termination and whistleblower claims should be able to withstand scrutiny, he said, despite what may be a novel use of the political activity reprisal statute they cite, Minnesota Statute 10A.36.

To contact the reporter on this story: Sam Skolnik in Washington at sskolnik@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Chris Opfer at copfer@bloomberglaw.com;
John Hughes in Washington at jhughes@bloombergindustry.com

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