Uff da! said the Royal Norwegian Embassy — you can’t use a Norwegian law inside the United States when suing the Minneapolis consulate over job discrimination.
You betcha! countered a U.S. District judge, who has ruled that a Minneapolis woman can cite a Norwegian statute that prohibits bullying in the workplace.
In ruling that Norway’s Work Environment Act applies, Judge Susan Nelson said recently that the contract Ellen Ewald, 54, signed with the consulate said she is subject to the laws of the country she’s working in and Norwegian law.
The suit, which is big news in Norway, alleges that Ewald was paid $40,000 less than a male counterpart in a comparable job, and that she was harassed and humiliated when she raised a ruckus.
“I think it’s quite unusual for a foreign country’s law to apply,” said Sheila Engelmeier, Ewald’s Minneapolis attorney. “But it makes perfect sense that the contract should apply in this case.”
There is no law prohibiting workplace bullying in the United States, although such laws have been proposed in 16 states. Steve Hunter, Minnesota AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer, said there is no such legislation pending in Minnesota.
Ewald, a Twin Cities native and University of Minnesota graduate, had lived in Norway more than 20 years before returning to Minneapolis in October 2008 to take a job with her adopted nation’s consulate as director of higher education and research. Fluent in Norwegian, she worked at the consulate from 2008 to 2011, promoting joint research by educational institutions between the two countries and educational exchanges for students and professors.
Paid $70,000 a year, she said, she learned that the consulate had hired a man to a comparable position for business and development at $110,000.
“I was shocked; I was stunned,” she said. “I know [Norway’s] values because of their [views on] gender equality.” Further, she claims, the consulate refused to allow her health insurance to cover her husband and daughter, while the man’s insurance covered his wife and children.
When she protested, she said, she was cut out of the loop on job-related activities and ordered to drop the issue. Her contract was not renewed in 2011.
She is now a partner in Tysvar, which helps Norwegian companies enter the U.S. market through Minnesota.
While Ewald may cite Norway’s law, she still must prove that the embassy broke it, said Herbert Gerson, an employment attorney from Tennessee with expertise in foreign law who is not involved in the case. He said it is “very rare” for a judge to apply a foreign law in a U.S. employment case. He heads the Ford Harrison International employment law group, which operates in 23 cities including Minneapolis.
The embassy has denied in court that it harassed or discriminated against Ewald and said she and the other employee were not doing comparable jobs. It also argued that Norwegian workplace law should not apply.
Daniel Wilczek, a Minneapolis attorney for the embassy, declined to comment.