Abel v. Abbott Nw. Hosp., A19-0461

Decision Date29 July 2020
Docket NumberA19-0461
Citation947 N.W.2d 58
Parties Meagan ABEL, Appellant, v. ABBOTT NORTHWESTERN HOSPITAL, et al., Respondents, St. Mary's University Minnesota, Respondent.
CourtMinnesota Supreme Court

McKEIG, Justice.

A graduate student brought Minnesota Human Rights Act and common-law negligence claims against a university and a hospital for race- and sex-based discrimination she allegedly experienced during a practicum program. The district court dismissed the Human Rights Act claims, concluding they were barred by the statute of limitations. The common-law negligence claims were dismissed as well, based on appellant Meagan Abel's failure to establish that respondents St. Mary's University Minnesota (St. Mary's) and Allina Health System1 (Allina) owed her a common-law duty separate from the obligations owed under the Human Rights Act. The court of appeals affirmed.

We hold that Abel's employment discrimination claim under the Human Rights Act against respondent Allina was timely pled and, moreover, that the district court erred in determining that Abel's lack of compensation from the practicum barred her claim. We hold that Abel's remaining statutory discrimination claims against respondents Allina and St. Mary's are time-barred. We further hold that Abel has alleged sufficient facts to maintain her common-law negligence claims. We affirm in part and reverse in part the court of appeals’ decision, and remand to the district court to reinstate certain claims and for further proceedings.


This appeal arises from the district court's grant of a motion to dismiss and motion for judgment on the pleadings, which resulted in the dismissal of four discrimination claims under the Minnesota Human Rights Act and two common-law negligence claims. The complaint alleges the following facts.2

Appellant Meagan Abel was a doctoral student in the psychology program at St. Mary's. As part of the program, Abel was required to complete a certain number of practicum hours at an accredited institution. She was encouraged by her program advisor to apply for placement with respondent Allina in its clinical psychology program at respondent Abbott Northwestern Hospital. Abel applied for the program and was selected. She began the practicum in September 2015.

The practicum program was supervised by Dr. Jeffrey Gottlieb, a clinical psychologist and Abbott's practicum training director. Over the course of the practicum, Dr. Gottlieb regularly engaged in inappropriate and harassing behavior. Dr. Gottlieb required Abel to participate in highly sexualized group and individual sessions, which included role-play exercises where Dr. Gottlieb would touch students’ chests; force students to mimic having sex with him; and make remarks on and critique students’ bodies. He gave shoulder massages to his female students—called "his girls" throughout the clinic—and engaged in flirtatious and sexual conduct. Dr. Gottlieb also referred to Abel, who is of Asian Indian descent, as "the graduate student of color" or "the brown one." The derogatory terms were used frequently and publicly. When Abel informed Dr. Gottlieb that she had reported incidents of racial discrimination in the past, he responded that if he had known, he would never have let her join the program.

Supported by Abbott's lack of written program policies, Dr. Gottlieb fostered a climate of isolation and dependence within the practicum program. Dr. Gottlieb told the practicum students that others at the clinic did not want them there and considered them a nuisance, and that it was only by virtue of his power and influence that the practicum program continued. He intimidated students by telling them that obeying him was integral to their continued participation in the practicum and future paid employment.

Allina removed Dr. Gottlieb as training director on December 23, 2015, and he was given a no-contact order with students. Abel took several weeks off due to stress and anxiety. When she returned, she started working for Dr. Elizabeth LaRusso, the medical director of mental health services. Despite the no-contact order, Dr. Gottlieb would often make "threatening eye contact" with Abel and other students, and the clinic layout resulted in Abel seeing Dr. Gottlieb on a daily basis. A few weeks after the no-contact order was issued, Dr. Gottlieb "approached [Abel] from behind and stood breathing in a simultaneously sexualized and threatening manner." Abel was also harassed and intimidated by allies of Dr. Gottlieb at the clinic following her return. This included harassment by the interim practicum program director following Dr. Gottlieb's removal, who continued some of Dr. Gottlieb's controversial methods.

Abel raised concerns with Allina throughout her practicum experience. Informally, she spoke with Dr. Kimberly Finch, who was the intern supervisor at Abbott. Dr. Finch shared Abel's concerns with her colleagues at the clinic. Abel also spoke informally with Dr. LaRusso, who, like Dr. Finch, agreed to share the information.

On a number of occasions, Abel met with Dr. Michael Schmitz, a clinical director at Abbott. Initially, Dr. Schmitz told Abel that she should bring her concerns to Dr. Gottlieb, but he later agreed to meet with her privately. During one private meeting, Dr. Schmitz instructed Abel to be "emotionally tough" and implied that Abel would have to tolerate Dr. Gottlieb's misconduct. An Abbott human resources representative joined several of Abel's meetings with Dr. Schmitz, and it was typical in these meetings for Abel to be asked yes or no questions, but she was otherwise prevented from sharing the details of her experiences and concerns. In one meeting, Dr. Schmitz and the HR representative acknowledged that they knew Dr. Gottlieb was violating the no-contact order, but asserted that it was probably unintentional. After Abel filed a formal complaint with the Board of Psychology, Dr. Schmitz requested a follow-up meeting where he and the HR representative focused primarily on keeping news of the complaint suppressed.

Abel had similar conversations with St. Mary's. After her initial interview with Dr. Gottlieb, Abel voiced concerns to the program advisor who had recommended she apply for Dr. Gottlieb's program. Her advisor counseled her to go along with Dr. Gottlieb's requests, dismissing his misconduct as "normal" and saying that he is "just funny." During the first month of the practicum, Abel raised concerns with Dr. Phyllis Solon, another St. Mary's faculty member. Dr. Solon acknowledged that Dr. Gottlieb was culturally incompetent and admitted that she had advised St. Mary's to discontinue sending students to work with him. Abel discovered that other students had experienced similar race- and sex-based discrimination during their own training under Dr. Gottlieb and that St. Mary's had merely counseled them on how to "get through" it.

Abel complained to Dr. Solon a second time two months after their first discussion, and Dr. Solon gave Abel tips on how to deflect Dr. Gottlieb's harassment and sexual advances, revealing that she knew of "at least three previous students who had been sexually and racially harassed." Dr. Solon advised Abel to avoid unwanted attention from Dr. Gottlieb because the school's efforts, including past complaints about Dr. Gottlieb and remediation plans, had gone nowhere. By December 2015, Abel "was raising her concerns with St. Mary's on a weekly basis." That same month, Abel announced to the class at her practicum seminar that Dr. Gottlieb was engaged in "racial and sexual violence."

In the spring and summer of 2016, faculty members at St. Mary's were hostile to Abel and made her feel that completion of her degree was contingent on her silence. Abel asserts that St. Mary's ignored Dr. Gottlieb's misconduct because St. Mary's depended on practicum sites under his control for its continued accreditation, and noted that Dr. Gottlieb sat on the advisory board for the psychology doctorate program at St. Mary's.

Allina and St. Mary's discussed whether Abel should complete her practicum in the spring of 2016. Dr. Solon of St. Mary's indicated to Dr. Finch of Allina that she was aware of Dr. Gottlieb's history of misconduct; the school had coached students on how to deal with him; and the school had conversations with him "about sexist and racist behaviors as well as abuse of power in supervision."

On May 2, 2016, Abel decided that she would end her practicum 3 months early. She allowed herself a few remaining weeks to "facilitate patient transitions" and complete her required hours. Abel ended her practicum on May 27, 2016.

Despite the practicum ending, Abel continued to work for Allina through the fall of 2016 with Dr. LaRusso. She explained that the work with Dr. LaRusso was off-site and "safe." In June 2016, at the request of Dr. LaRusso, Abel met with Dr. Paul Goering, Allina's Vice President of Mental Health. They discussed Abel's practicum experience and ongoing hostility among clinic staff. Dr. Gottlieb resigned in June 2016.

Abel also had several conversations with St. Mary's related to her practicum experience after the practicum had ended. In spring 2017, Abel was instructed by a faculty member at St. Mary's to apply to an internship site that Dr. Gottlieb was affiliated with, telling Abel she would have to "suck it up." During the internship application process, Dr. Solon also told Abel that she needed to put the experience behind her because she "represent[ed] St. Mary's."

Dr. Solon further contacted Abel in January 2018, in the wake of the Larry Nassar trial in Michigan, to see how Abel was reacting to the news. Abel responded that she was having a difficult time, and she asked Dr. Solon a series of follow-up questions related to her own harassment. Dr. Solon responded, making it clear that she and St. Mary's "were aware of the extent of [the] misconduct," but implying that completion of Abel's degree program depended on her continued silence.

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