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Federal District Court Allows Sexual Harassment Claim to Proceed to Trial

Sexual Harassment Jury

Mehl v. PortaCo, Inc. and Timothy Wilson (D. Minn. 2012):  A federal district court in Minnesota denied almost all of PortaCo, Inc.’s motion for summary judgment and allowed Cassandra Mehl to proceed to trial on her claims of sexual harassment under Title VII and the Minnesota Human Rights Act.

Mehl began working as a welder at PortaCo in 2010 – she was one of only three female employees.   Timothy Wilson, PortaCo’s president and majority owner, often walked through the shop floor and interacted with employees.  During Mehl’s first week of employment, Wilson lifted up Mehl’s shirt and tried to reach inside her front pants pocket.  Mehl told him not to touch her.

The next month, Wilson used a piece of chalk to draw a circle around Mehl’s breast over her work clothes.  While Mehl was cutting metal, Wilson put a tape measure in front of his crotch and asked her to cut nine inches for him.  Over the next two months, Wilson: touched Mehl’s backside on multiple occasions; rubbed Mehl’s back and outlined her bra straps while addressing other employees; and grabbed her backside and reached between her legs.  Mehl complained about all of this conduct to her supervisor, who took no action.

After just over three months of employment, Mehl resigned.  She subsequently filed an administrative charge with the EEOC, received a “right to sue” letter, and filed suit in federal district court in Minnesota.

Defendants argued that the court should dismiss Mehl’s claim on summary judgment because no reasonable finder of fact could conclude that Wilson’s conduct was sufficiently “severe and pervasive” so as to alter her employment conditions, as required for a sexual harassment claim.

When analyzing whether conduct is severe and pervasive, courts consider:

  • the frequency of the conduct;
  • its severity;
  • whether it was physically threatening or humiliating; and
  • whether it unreasonably interfered with an employee’s work performance.
The court rejected Defendants’ argument and pointed out that Mehl’s supervisors knew of virtually every single instance of harassment; Wilson’s conduct was nearly constant for three months; a reasonable person would find Wilson’s conduct humiliating and degrading; and Wilson’s conduct caused Mehl’s work performance to suffer.
The court also found that reasonable jurors could conclude that Mehl was forced out of her position, or constructively discharged.  “Constructive discharge occurs when an employer deliberately renders the employee’s working conditions intolerable with the intent to force her to quit.”  Baker v. John Morrell & Co. (8th Cir. 2004).  The court found that jurors could easily find that Wilson’s conduct toward Mehl was objectively intolerable, and forced her from her position.
The court ordered the parties to be trial ready by July 1, 2012.