May 17, 2012

Sex-based Hostile Work Environment Claims Clarified by MN Supreme Court

Posted in Discrimination, Gender / Sex, Harassment, Hostile Work Environment, Sexual Harassment tagged , , , , , , at 11:58 am by Tom Jacobson

The term “hostile work environment” is one of the most commonly misunderstood terms in the world of employment law. For example, I’ve heard many employees complain that they work in a hostile environment because their boss is a jerk or because their co-workers are mean to them. While such an environment may indeed be hostile, hostility is generally not a sufficient basis for a legal challenge unless it is based on a person’s protected classification, such as his or her sex.

But even when it comes to sex-based hostile work environment claims, there has been a lingering question: If a person is targeted with hostility because of his/her sex, but the hostility is not sexual in nature (for example, unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, sexually motivated physical contact or other verbal or physical conduct or communication of a sexual nature), may the sex-based hostility be the basis of a hostile work environment claim under the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA)?  The Minnesota Supreme Court has now answered that question in the affirmative.

In the case of LaMont v. Independent School District #728, which the Court decided on May 16, 2012 Carol LaMont was employed as a custodian by Independent School District #728 in Elk River, MN. LaMont was supervised by a male, Doug Miner, who she claimed made frequent comments about his negative view of women in the workplace. LaMont also claimed that Miner treated men and women differently regarding certain terms and conditions of employment. She did not allege that Miner’s conduct was sexual in nature.  Relying on the MHRA, LaMont sued the school district based on a hostile work environment sex discrimination theory.

As a threshold issue, the Court had to decide whether a hostile work environment claim under the MHRA can be based on harassing conduct that is based on sex, even if the offending conduct is not sexual. To reach its decision, the Court first noted that the MHRA’s definition of discrimination “does not limit claims of a hostile work environment to sexual harassment.”  The Court then noted how in prior cases, it had recognized that “sexual harassment is just one form of  hostile work environment that constitutes sex discrimination in the terms and conditions of employment.” Finally, the Court found support from federal cases interpreting Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Ultimately, the Court said:

For the foregoing reasons, we conclude that the MHRA permits a hostile work  environment claim based on sex. We hold that verbal and physical harassment directed at an employee because of her sex may constitute discrimination in the terms and conditions of employment.

Turning then to the specific allegations in the LaMont case, the Court found that even though these types of claims can be brought under the MHRA, Lamont’s allegations were not enough to support a claim under the law.

What you need to know:  Even though Lamont ultimately lost, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled in her case that a hostile work environment claim under the MHRA can be based on harassing conduct that is based on sex, even if the offending conduct is not sexual. This makes it even more important for employers to adopt and enforce policies which prohibit sex discrimination.

For more information about this article, please contact me at taj@alexandriamnlaw.com.

The comments posted in this blog are for general informational purposes only. They are not to be considered as legal advice, and they do not establish an attorney-client relationship. For legal advice regarding your specific situation, please consult your attorney.

Copyright 2012 Swenson Lervick Syverson Trosvig Jacobson Schultz, PA

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