Yesterday, the Minnesota Supreme Court concluded for the first time that a cause of action exists under the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA) for a hostile work environment based on sex without evidence that the alleged conduct was also sexual in nature.
Executive Summary: Yesterday, the Minnesota Supreme Court concluded for the first time that a cause of action exists under the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA) for a hostile work environment based on sex without evidence that the alleged conduct was also sexual in nature. This holding in LaMont v. Independent School District #728 therefore brings Minnesota state law on sexual harassment in line with its federal counterpart despite the differences in the language between the relevant statutes. Compare Minn. Stat. § 363A.03, subd. 43 (defining sexual harassment as "unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, sexually motivated physical contact or communication of a sexual nature."), with 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1) (generally prohibiting sex discrimination).
In LaMont, a female custodian complained that her supervisor expressed a negative view of women in the workplace through his words and actions. The supervisor allegedly stated that he did not want women working on his crew and that a woman's place was only in the "kitchen and the bedroom." The supervisor also physically separated the men from women while working, and required that the women custodians check in with him via radio during their breaks (while the men apparently did not). The supervisor also made one alleged remark that was sexual in nature, stating that the "only screwing [he] does is with [his] wife," in response to a warning from the plaintiff that he not "screw up" his back while lifting a heavy object.
The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the school district and the appellate court affirmed. The Minnesota Court of Appeals concluded that because the alleged conduct was not sufficiently sexual in its nature, the plaintiff could not maintain a claim for hostile work environment. LaMont, No. A10-00543, 2011 Minn. App. Unpub. LEXIS 104 (holding that sexual harassment is the only form of harassment prohibited by the MHRA).
The Minnesota Supreme Court reversed, finding that the MHRA does permit "a hostile work environment claim based on sex, separate and apart from its prohibition of sexual harassment that creates a hostile work environment." The court reasoned, in part, that certain treatment of women can be "so extreme that the treatment can affect a woman's conditions of employment, amounting to discrimination." Nevertheless, the Court concluded that the alleged conduct in this case was not severe or pervasive enough to support a hostile work environment claim because, based on the totality of the circumstances, it did not "alter the conditions of the plaintiff's employment and create an abusive working environment." In short, the Court concluded that the supervisor's comments and policies did not unreasonably interfere with the plaintiff's ability to do her job.
Employers' Bottom Line:
The LaMont decision has effectively created a new cause of action for sexual harassment under Minnesota law. No longer does the harassing conduct have to be strictly sexual in nature; under LaMont, harassment based on sex alone is now actionable. If you have any questions regarding this decision or any other sex discrimination issue in the state, please contact any member of Ford & Harrison's Minneapolis office or the Ford & Harrison attorney with whom you usually work.