By Michael K. Browne, Assistant Director – Complaint Investigations
As of May 16, 2012, the Minnesota Supreme Court has provided some clarification in analyzing hostile work environment claims in its recent decision in LaMont v. Independent School District #728.
Formerly, Minnesota courts were uncertain whether a woman needed to be subjected to sexual harassment in her work environment to qualify as “hostile.” However, the Minnesota Supreme Court has now spoken—any mistreatment because of her sex may create a hostile work environment, as long as it is “severe and pervasive.”
In the LaMont case, the Plaintiff, Carol LaMont, worked nights at Elk River High School, where the managing custodian, Doug Miner, vocally disproved of women in the work place and, in the name of productivity, segregated female employees from male counterparts and disallowed men to speak with them during work. LaMont filed suit. However, she faced an uphill battle that would end with the Supreme Court of Minnesota.
The Supreme Court asked whether under Minnesota’s Human Rights Act (MHRA), a hostile work environment could be based on variant treatment due to sex, even if Miner’s comments didn’t qualify as “sexual harassment” under Minnesota Statute § 363A.03, subd. 43. Because Miner wasn’t making overtly sexual comments to LaMont, but rather treating her differently because of her sex, could the work environment still be considered hostile? Yes, it could. Citing the seminal hostile work environment case, Continental Can Co. v. State, the Supreme Court stated that“[o]ne of the purposes of the [MHRA] is to rid the workplace of disparate treatment of female employees merely because they are female.”
However, Miner’s conduct did need to be “so severe or pervasive as to alter the conditions of the her employment and create an abusive working environment.” Unfortunately for LaMont, the Court found Miner’s conduct wasn’t severe enough. While Miner’s comments were offensive, they were infrequent and Miner’s rules didn’t interfere with LaMont’s job. While this shows a high threshold for what the Court considers “hostile” conduct, it may not always be insurmountable. In his dissent, Justice Alan Page stated that “[n]o person should have to endure such treatment in the workplace simply because she was born female.”
Although hostile work environment and sexual harassment claims are still difficult to prove and the Court remains stringent in how it applies the “severe and pervasive” standard, the Supreme Court in the LaMont decision has broadened the scope of the analysis.
If you fear you are being harassed at work and think your work environment is hostile, please contact the Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights at (612) 673-3012.
A special thank you to our law clerk, Liz Stoneburg for her contribution to this article. Good luck on the bar exam! ☺