There’s No Sex in Your Violence: Opinion Reveals Minnesota Only Allows Hostile Work Environment Claims Based On Sexual Harassment, Not Gender Discrimination

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A female employee brings an action against a school district under the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA), alleging hostile work environment based upon gender discrimination. The gravaman of her complaint is that

her male supervisor made sexist statements about the role of women at home and in employment settings. She offered further evidence that the supervisor placed restrictions on the women that did not apply to the men, such as not talking during work, checking in with him before and after breaks, wearing uniforms, and dropping off their personal belongings before clocking in.

This sounds like a pretty hostile work environment to me. Unfortunately, the Court of Appeals of Minnesota disagreed, granting the school district’s motion for summary judgment dismissing the complaint in its recent opinion in LaMont v. Independent School District No. 728, 2011 WL 292131 (Minn.App. 2011). Why?

Well, according to the court, the MHRA does not allow for hostile work environment claims based upon gender discrimination; instead, it only allows for such claims based upon sexual harassment, which it defines as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, sexually motivated physical contact or other verbal or physical conduct or communication of a sexual nature.” Because “[w]holly excluded from this definition is sexist, misanthropic, or otherwise gender-based communication of conduct,” “[t]he unambiguous language of the MHRA requires appellant to present harassment based on sexuality, not gender.” Indeed, this is not the first time that the court has reached this conclusion. See, e.g., Mercure v. West Pub. Corp., 2003 WL 23024519 (Minn.App. 2003) (“The MHRA’s definition of sexual harassment clearly requires proof that the conduct or communication at issue was sexual in nature.”).

The court did note that Title VII recognizes a cause of action for gender harassment. But while the court acknowledged that Minnesota state courts look to federal interpretations of Title VII in construing the MHRA when the language of the two statutes is similar, it concluded that “Title VII and the MHRA are dissimilar in their treatment of sexual harassment in that Title VII prohibits gender discrimination while the MHRA specifically prohibits sexual harassment.”

So, how did the MHRA come to prohibit “sexual harassment”? Well, the Minnesota legislature amended the MHRA after the Supreme Court of Minnesota found in Continental Can Co., Inc. v. State, 297 N.W.2d 241 (Minn. 1980), that the MHRA did not specifically prohibit sexual harassment but should be read to cover such harassment. It has been at least 7+ years since the Court of Appeals of Minnesota first found that the MHRA did not support a cause of action for hostile work environment based upon gender discrimination. Isn’t it about time that the Minnesota legislature (or the Supreme Court of Minnesota) stepped in and corrected what seems to be an obvious oversight?

-Colin Miller

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This entry was posted in Acts of Violence, Courts and the Judiciary, Employment Discrimination, Feminism and the Workplace, Sexual Harassment. Bookmark the permalink.