5/16/2012 Minnesota Supreme Court Expands Hostile Work Environment Cause of Action
On May 16, 2012, the Minnesota Supreme Court concluded that a hostile work environment cause of action under the Minnesota Human Rights Act (“MHRA”) Minn. Stat. § 363A et seq., may be based on harassing conduct that is based on sex, even if the conduct is not sexual in nature. The Court’s holding in LaMont v. IndependentSchool District #728, Civ. No. A10-543, 2012 Minn. LEXIS 202 (Minn. 2012) is significant to Minnesota employers because it expands the MHRA to permit a cause of action for a hostile work environment based on sex, separate and apart from the MHRA’s prohibition of sexual harassment that creates a hostile work environment claim.
In LaMont v. Independent School District #728, the Plaintiff was a female night custodian who began working for Independent District #728 (the “School District”) in 2002. In April 2006, the School District hired a new male night lead custodian (the “Supervisor”). The Supervisor oversaw three male custodians and two female custodians, including the Plaintiff. Two months later the Supervisor was promoted to head custodian.
In his position, the Supervisor made several negative comments to the Plaintiff and other custodial employees about women in the workplace. More specifically, the Supervisor allegedly stated:
• “Women have their place.”
• The only place for women is the “kitchen and bedroom.”
• “There is a time and place for women and [the high school] is not the time or place.”
The Supervisor also differentiated female workers from male workers. He allegedly separated the men from the women and did not allow men and women to work together during their shifts. He allegedly required the female custodians to check in with him via radio during their breaks but did not require the male custodians to do the same. In addition, he allegedly prohibited the female custodians from talking unless they were on a break while he did not prohibit the male custodians from speaking with each other while on the clock.
The Plaintiff filed suit against the School District for, among other things, hostile work environment under the MHRA. The School District moved for summary judgment. The District Court granted summary judgment and dismissed the Plaintiff’s hostile work environment claim concluding that the MHRA did not permit a cause of action for a hostile work environment based on harassment that did not meet the definition of sexual harassment under Minn. Stat. § 363A.03, subd. 43. The District Court reasoned that because most of the harassing conduct was not sexual in nature, such conduct did not meet the definition of sexual harassment. Thus, the District Court determined that the Plaintiff’s cause of action for hostile work environment failed. The Minnesota Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court’s decision reasoning that under the MHRA, a cause of action for hostile work environment for discrimination based on sex is limited to conduct or communication of a sexual nature. See Lamont v. Independent School District #728, Civ. No. A10-543, 2011 Minn. Ct. App. Unpub. LEXIS 104 (Minn. Ct. App. Feb. 1, 2011).
The Minnesota Supreme Court reversed, concluding for the first time that the MHRA permits a cause of action for hostile work environment based on sex, separate and apart from the MHRA’s prohibition of sexual harassment that creates a hostile work environment. LaMont, 2012 Minn. LEXIS 202, at *16. The Court reasoned, in part, that the MHRA’s definition of discrimination does not limit a cause of action for a hostile work environment to sexual harassment. In addition, the Court noted that verbal and physical harassment based on sex is simply one type of behavior that can alter a female employee’s terms and conditions of employment amounting to discrimination. Of further importance, the Court found support for its decision through federal court decisions interpreting similar language found in Title VII holding that a hostile work environment claim based on sex (as opposed to sexual harassment) is actionable under Title VII. Despite the Court’s holding, it affirmed the District Court’s dismissal of the Plaintiff’s hostile work environment claim determining that the offending conduct at issue was not severe or pervasive enough to interfere with the Plaintiff’s ability to perform the duties of her job. LaMont, 2012 Minn. LEXIS 202, at *23-24.
The Minnesota Supreme Court’s decision in LaMont expands the meaning of hostile work environment under the MHRA to include harassing conduct based on sex, even if such conduct is not sexual in nature. This decision may make it easier for employees to assert hostile work environment claims under the MHRA. Minnesota employers should consider updating their employee handbooks to reflect this new change in the law and conduct management training to ensure its management team has a firm understanding of Minnesota’s discrimination laws. If your company would like assistance with drafting your employee handbooks or discrimination training or if you have any questions or concerns about discrimination in the workplace, contact any of the Trepanier & MacGillis P.A. employment law attorneys.
About the author:
Trepanier & MacGillis P.A. attorney Michael L. McCain focuses his practice primarily on labor and employment law. Mike can be reached at 612-455-0504 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Mike has a special interest in representing restaurants, bars, and other hospitality establishments in their labor and employment law matters. Mike is a member of the Minnesota Restaurant Association and the Richfield Chamber of Commerce.