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Minnesota Supreme Court clarifies workplace sexual harassment rules

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

The Minnesota Supreme Court has issued a ruling that ­clarifies what employees have to show in order to win a sexual harassment case under the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA). It concluded that employees who work in a sexually hostile work environment don’t have to lose pay or benefits to win a case. Nor is it a defense that the harasser was an equal opportunity harasser who targeted both men and women.

Recent case: Brian owns and controls several small businesses including Lou’s Fish House in Two Harbors. Three female employees sued over Brian’s behavior. All had quit after relatively short employment stints, each citing the ongoing sexual harassment they claim Brian subjected them to.

Jaime claimed that after working for Brian for about six months, he began asking about her sexual preferences. She said he frequently used sexual language at work, called her by pet names and made comments about his penis and the attractiveness of female customers. Jaime told him several times that she found his behavior offensive and asked him to stop.

Jennifer recounted similar conduct and added that Brian had asked her if he would hook him up with friends, adding that he would pay for the service. He also called her his girlfriend. Brian also showed her a Playboy picture and gave her a pornographic DVD. Finally, he picked wood chips off her sweater while she was working. She, too, quit.

Kathe, another employee, also reported that she was harassed. She said Brian called her “Sweets,” discussed the relative size of men’s penises and when he ran into her at a football game, suggested he wanted to have sex with her.

The three women sued. Attorneys for Brian and his companies said if Brian was a harasser, he harassed everyone—male and female alike. They also argued that the women all quit and that none had lost any pay or benefits or otherwise suffered any harm from Brian’s conduct.

Lower courts dismissed the women’s case, reasoning that the environment either wasn’t severe or pervasive enough to be called sexual harassment or that the women didn’t actually lose anything like pay or benefits.

The Supreme Court of Minnesota saw things differently and sent the case back to trial.

It concluded that women who work in a sexually hostile workplace don’t have to lose pay or benefits to sue. Nor is it a defense under the MHRA that the sexually explicit conduct targets both males and females. (Rasmussen, et al., v. Two Harbors Fish Company, et al., No. A11-2178, Supreme Court of Minnesota, 2013)

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