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MN Supreme Court Expands Meaning of Hostile Work Environment Under MHRA

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A hostile work environment claim under the Minnesota Human Rights Act (“MHRA”) may be based on harassing conduct that is based on sex, even if the offending conduct is not sexual. 

In a case released last week by the MN Supreme Court, the court held that verbal and physical harassment directed at an employee because of her sex may constitute discrimination in the terms and conditions of employment.

Female Plaintiff began working for Defendant high school in 2002 as a night custodian.  Four years later, the high school hired a new male lead night custodian to improve services and increase accountability among the custodial staff.  Two months later, he was promoted to lead custodian.

Almost immediately, the lead custodian began making comments to Plaintiff about women in the workplace.  Specifically, he stated that, “women have their place; you’ve got to keep them in their place.”  He also mentioned that, “the only place for women is the kitchen and the bedroom.”

This behavior continued intermittently for a period time until Plaintiff filed suit against the school district for, among other things, hostile work environment.  The lower courts dismissed Plaintiff’s claim because this type of harassment allegedly did not meet the definition of sexual harassment under the MHRA, as most the conduct was not sexual in nature.  Sexual harassment under the MHRA is defined as:

“Sexual harassment” includes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, sexually motivated physical contact or other verbal or physical conduct or communication of a sexual nature when:

(1) submission to that conduct or communication is made a term or condition, either explicitly or implicitly, of obtaining employment, public accommodations or public services, education, or housing;

(2) submission to or rejection of that conduct or communication by an individual is used as a factor in decisions affecting that individual’s employment, public accommodations or public services, education, or housing; or

(3) that conduct or communication has the purpose of effect of substantially interfering with an individual’s employment, public accommodations or public services, education, or housing, or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive employment, public accommodations, public services, educational, or housing environment.

The MN Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s decision, and noted that the statutory definition of discrimination does not limit claims of a hostile work environment to sexual harassment.  The statute simply states that the discrimination on the basis of sex “includes” sexual harassment.  The word “includes” does not narrow or limit claims of discrimination based on sex to sexual harassment.  It is just a non-exhaustive example of discrimination based on sex.

The court also went on to note that, “another type of behavior that can alter a female employee’s conditions of employment, amounting to discrimination, is verbal and physical harassment based on sex.”

This is the first time the MN Supreme Court has interpreted the MHRA to include claims for sexual harassment in the workplace where the harassment was not of a sexual nature, but took place simply because the employee was female.

Takeaway:  Harassment based on gender continues in the workplace.  Employees will now likely have an easier time asserting severe, pervasive and gender-based claims of discrimination under the MHRA.

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