Hostile Work Environment
The Law on Hostile Work Environment in Minnesota
Even if you haven’t been terminated, you may still have an employment claim against your employer for hostile work environment. This claim is frequently misunderstood, though. It’s not enough to bring a lawsuit to state that your boss or employer is mean to you, doesn’t treat you right, or doesn’t do things the way you think they should be done. There is no law saying that your employer has to be kind or make good business decisions. Rather, in order to have a legal claim, the hostile work environment must be based on discrimination.
For example, sexual harassment is a common type of hostile work environment claim. Basically, an employee can allege that her supervisors have made her work environment hostile by sexual comments, innuendo, propositions, or even grabbing and assault. Race, age, disability, and sexual orientation discrimination can all form the basis for a hostile work environment claim, but employment lawyers must have the ability to prove that the harassment at work was on account of the employee’s race, gender, sex, age, disability, or sexual orientation. For better or worse, there is no law mandating kindness by employers to employees or among peers. Hostile work environment claims must be based on some form of unlawful discrimination.
How Do I Prove Hostile Work Environment?
We prove these claims by basically documenting the maltreatment that employees have received. A couple things are very important here. First, we need to show that the hostile work environment was on account of your age, race, sex, disability, or sexual orientation. So you can testify or offer other evidence about comments, drawings, emails, or other events that demonstrate that the maltreatment was motivated by discrimination. Your testimony alone counts as evidence – it doesn’t need to be backed up by other witnesses’ testimony or documents – but of course it helps.
Second, you need to show that you took steps to notify management of the problem, but management took no action. For example, if you believe that your coworkers are sexually harassing you by making sexual comments or touching you or whatever, you need to notify a supervisor as soon as possible. This is for your safety (which is always the most important concern) and your potential legal claim.
Your employer is not liable for the acts of rank and file employees unless you tell management and they don’t take corrective action. So just because your coworkers are sexually harassing you, your employer is not automatically liable. Your employer is liable, though, if it knows about the sexual harassment and doesn’t take corrective action to protect you. So if you notify a supervisor about the sexual harassment, and the supervisor does nothing, and the harassment continues, then you have a strong case for hostile work environment sexual harassment against the employer.
What is a Constructive Discharge?
Constructive discharge is a legal concept that you can use to prove a wrongful termination claim even if your employer didn’t technically fire you and you actually quit. Sometimes it can arise in hostile work environment claims. You can argue that your employer’s failure to take action to correct the hostile work environment made working conditions so terrible and onerous that you had no choice but to resign. That allows employees to pursue damages for wrongful termination (through the constructive discharge) in addition to hostile work environment.
Beware, though: proving constructive discharge is hard – it’s a high burden. Make sure to talk to an employment lawyer before you quit on the theory of constructive discharge (unless you feel that your personal safety is in immediate jeopardy).
How Much is My Hostile Work Environment Case Worth?
You’re right to ask this question as you make a decision on whether to pursue a case in court or not. Starting an employment case is a big decision and you should know what your potential return is for the investment of your time and energy.
The monetary value of your case depends on a lot of things, but mainly:
- the strength of your case on the merits: can we prove that you suffered a hostile work environment based on a discriminatory reason (sex, age, race, sexual orientation, disability) and that management knew about it and did nothing?;
- the amount of damages you’ve suffered (in hostile work environment cases, this is mainly through emotional distress damages);
- the offensiveness and egregiousness of the hostile work environment. How awful was the work environment and what can we present to the jury? Did people use slurs? How long did the conduct continue? Did management have notice or participate in the abuse? Was there touching or grabbing? Generally, a hostile work environment case gets more valuable the worse the conduct was, as it increases the possibility of a large punitive damages award;
- whether your employer has the ability to pay a large amount. Individuals or small businesses generally don’t have the resources to pay a large judgment or settlement and can use this as leverage to reduce the settlement value of your case. Large companies, on the other hand, generally don’t have this issue; and
- your tolerance for risk. The longer you’re willing to pursue a case and your willingness to accept the risk of trial will increase the value of your case. Because of the time value of money and the certainty of a settlement, early settlements generally receive a discount from settlements later in litigation.
We get this question so much that we’ve created a separate, detailed page going through each of these factors, right here. Check it out – it will give you a good idea of what to expect when we talk about your case at your free consultation.
What Kind of Damages Can I Get in a Hostile Work Environment Case?
The types of damages available for a hostile work environment claim include:
- Emotional Distress. This is typically the largest category of damages;
- Lost wages. This may come up if you had to miss work due to the hostile work environment or you’re claiming constructive discharge;
- Medical bills – past and future. If you had to seek counseling or will need counseling or psychological care in the future due to the hostile work environment, you can recover those costs;
- Punitive Damages. This can also be a large category of damages that you can recover in hostile work environment cases. If we can show that the employer’s conduct was particularly awful or offensive, or that management knew about it or participated in it, juries may award punitive damages to you; and
- Attorney fees and costs. If you win a hostile work environment claim, your employer has to pay your attorney fees and costs.
What’s an Average Settlement for a Hostile Work Environment Case?
That’s a tough question to answer because there’s really no “average” settlement. The value of a hostile work environment case depends on the strength of your case; the damages you suffered; the ability of the employer to pay a large amount (if the employer is insured, even better); the offensiveness of your employer’s conduct; and your tolerance for risk and willingness to go to trial. See the paragraph above for more detail.
But we know that many employees looking for answers right now just want to see some numbers from actual settlements, so here are some numbers.
- We represented a material handler in inventory control who had been sexually harassed by her supervisor. The supervisor said gross things to her about her body and asked her to sit on his lap. He also watched pornography in the office. She reported the behavior to Human Resources and HR didn’t do anything, so the conduct continued. Because the employer had notice of the hostile work environment and didn’t do anything, and because the potential for punitive damages was high, the employer settled very early in the litigation for $125,000.
- We represented a laborer/mechanic who was Filipino. His manager called him slurs, including: “spic,” “n***er,” “monkey,” and “ape.” His manager even urinated on our client as he was working on a car. Because it was a manager created the hostile work environment, we didn’t need to worry about notice: employers are generally liable for the conduct of their supervisors and management. The case had large potential for punitive damages because of the grotesque behavior. The employer settled very early for $250,000.
- We represented a gay police officer who said that his work environment became hostile after he told his supervisors that he was gay. He said that his supervisors gave him poor assignments, bad reviews, and tried to paper his file to build a record for termination. Ultimately, the work environment became so bad that the officer quit – he claimed that he was constructively discharged. We litigated this case all the way through summary judgment. After the Court denied the defense motion to dismiss the case, the case settled for $73,000.
Please note that just because these employees received the above results doesn’t mean that’s what your case is worth. These are just examples. Your case value depends on a number of things that we’ll talk about during your consultation.
What Should I do if I’m in a Hostile Work Environment?
First of all, if you’re searching for answers right now because you’re in a hostile work environment, we’re very sorry that you’re in this position. We know how awful it is to be in a situation where the only thing you want to do is work, but your employer is making it nearly impossible. It’s abusive, unfair, and not right.
Second, you need to make sure your personal safety is guaranteed. If you feel physically unsafe at work, notify the police and don’t go back to a situation where you can be harmed.
Third, you need to notify your supervisor of the hostile work environment if you haven’t already, preferably in writing. You’ll need to show that management had notice of the hostile work environment and didn’t do anything, so make a written record of you notifying them. If your supervisor or managers are the ones creating the hostile work environment, then don’t worry about it – the employer is liable for their conduct.
Fourth, write everything down that happened to you. Write down all the incidents of harassment. Write down who harassed you, when, and where. Write down when you told management or supervisors about the harassment, how you told them, and what actions (if any) they took. Write down the names of employees that you think may have useful information. Write down the types of documents or emails that you think may have good information about your case. Write down everything – the reason for this is that your memory will probably fade over time and you want to document things while they’re fresh in your mind. If you pursue a hostile work environment lawsuit, your trial likely won’t be for at least 12 to 18 months, so you want to have something that you can refer to – write everything down.
Fifth, call us for a free consultation to talk about your case.
Contact Our Minnesota and Wisconsin Hostile Work Environment and Employment Lawyers for a Free Consultation.
All consultations are free. During your consultation, we’ll discuss the strengths and weaknesses of your case, the potential value of your case (e.g. how much your case is worth), and the best way to proceed.
The process for a free consultation with our employment lawyers is pretty simple. First,call our firm at 612.349.2723. You’ll talk to our legal assistant, Sara, for about 5-10 minutes. She’ll get some basic information about you and your case.
About 3 or 4 hours later, you’ll get a call from us. If you’ve got a case that’s a little outside our wheelhouse, then Sara will call you and give you a referral for an attorney that we think is better suited to handle your case. Our number one goal is to make sure you get the best representation possible for your particular matter – if that’s not us, we’ll tell you immediately and get you to someone else that we trust.
If we think that we can help you, then Sara will call you and set an appointment for you to talk to one of our employment lawyers. We’ll call you at time that works for you and discuss your case and give you our honest assessment of its strengths, weaknesses, and value. We’ll then set a time where you can come to our office and meet your employment lawyer personally – at that time, we’ll discuss your case in more detail, sign a contingency fee retainer agreement, and talk about the process of moving forward with your case.
When you come in to meet your employment lawyer, please bring all relevant documents that you want us to look at, including: pay-stubs personnel file (if you have it) employment handbook (if you have it) any letters from your employer, including your termination letter any text messages or emails that you think are important and any other documents that you think might be helpful.