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Minnesota Supreme Court Redefines Sexual Harassment Under The Minnesota Human Rights Act

May 2012

By: James B. Sherman, Esq.

In a case of first impression involving the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA) the State Supreme Court expanded the definition of actionable "hostile environment" sexual harassment. Minnesota employers will want to sit up and take notice of this new decision.

The case involved a female janitor at the Elk River High School. Apparently her employment was uneventful until the School District hired a lead custodian to supervise the night shift custodians comprised of 3 males and 2 females, including the plaintiff. The new lead custodian, a man, allegedly wasted no time in declaring his negative opinion about working with women. Among many other tawdry comments attributed to this lead custodian, he was accused of saying that women belong in "the kitchen or the bedroom" and "you've got to keep [women] in their place." The main issue in this case was whether a claim for hostile environment sex harassment could be based on these kinds of comments which, although offensive, were not of a sexual nature but aimed at the plaintiff's gender.

The lower courts dismissed the complaint, holding that the MHRA does not permit a claim for hostile work environment unless the objectionable conduct falls within the statute's definition of "sex harassment." That definition requires that harassment be of a sexual nature. However, the Minnesota Supreme Court granted an appeal and overturned these decisions, holding instead: "The MHRA permits a hostile work environment claim based on sex, separate and apart from its prohibition of sexual harassment [that is sexual in nature] that creates a hostile work environment."

As a result of this new decision employees may now pursue claims of hostile environment harassment under the MHRA based on offensive conduct and comments aimed at their gender, in addition to harassment that is sexual in nature. Employers can therefore expect to see more lawsuits and administrative charges challenging boorish and lewd behavior aimed at gender stereotypes and/or based on male bravado/machismo toward the opposite sex, in addition to the already recognized claims involving sexual propositions and the like.

Although the alleged behavior of accused supervisor in this case was way out of bounds it is important to note that the plaintiff may have won the proverbial battle but lost the war. She succeeded in redefining hostile environment sex harassment under Minnesota law, but her lawsuit was nevertheless dismissed. The Court's majority decided the supervisor's conduct, while inappropriate, was not severe enough to alter her working conditions and, therefore, did not create an actionable "hostile environment." Justices Alan Page and Paul Anderson dissented and would have found that the plaintiff's working environment indeed was "hostile."

There are several lessons to be taken from this case. First of all, hostile environment harassment under the MHRA need not be limited to conduct of a sexual nature; it now includes conduct directed at an employee because of his or her sex. Second, the decision itself shows the Minnesota Supreme Court's willingness to read workplace laws broadly to encompass more than their literal interpretation. Accordingly, similar claims of hostile environment harassment may also be based on conduct directed at a person's age, race, disability and other statuses protected under the MHRA. Finally, although the plaintiff in this case lost because her supervisor's conduct was deemed to fall short of the high standard of actionable sex harassment, employers are still well-advised not to tolerate such behavior in the workplace. Besides facing a protracted lawsuit this employer had two Supreme Court Justices that would have found against them...risky indeed!

Employers who have not conducted sex harassment training in recent years (or at all) may want to use this significant development in Minnesota law as an occasion to update policies, conduct supervisor training and educate themselves on the Supreme Court's new standard of what constitutes actionable "hostile environment" sexual harassment. For answers to these and related interests, contact James B. Sherman at (952) 746-1700, or email jasherman@wesselssherman.com.