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Minnesota Supreme Court: Hostile Work Environment Sex Discrimination can occur even without Sexual Harassment

LaMont v. Independent School District #728 (Minn. 2012):  The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled today that a hostile work environment claim under the Minnesota Human Rights Act may be based on conduct that is based on sex, even if the conduct is not sexual.

Carol Lamont worked as a custodian at Elk River High School.  Her supervisor, Doug Miner, made several comments to his employees and co-workers that indicated his negative view of women in the workplace.  For example, Miner:

  • told a male employee that he didn’t want any women on his crew;
  • stated that “[w]omen have their place.  You’ve got to keep them in their place”; and
  • said that the only place for women is in “kitchen and the bedroom”; and
  • stated “There is a time and a place for women and Elk River High School is not the time or the place.”

Miner further separated the work areas of men and women, required women to check in during their breaks, and prohibited women from speaking unless they were on break.  LaMont repeatedly complained about the hostile work environment to Elk River High School’s leadership, but nothing was done.

LaMont filed a lawsuit alleging hostile work environment under the Minnesota Human Rights Act.  The district court dismissed her suit at summary judgment and ruled that the MHRA does not allow hostile work environment claims based on sex that do not qualify as sexual harassment.  The Minnesota Court of Appeals affirmed and concluded that sexual harassment is the only form of harassment prohibited by the MHRA.

The Minnesota Supreme Court disagreed, and held that the MHRA permits a hostile work environment claim based on sex, separate and apart from its prohibition of sexual harassment that creates a hostile work environment:

“Another type of behavior that can alter a female employee’s conditions of employment, amounting to discrimination, is verbal and physical harassment based on sex.  This too is ‘disparate treatment of female employees merely because they are female,’ the kind of behavior we have said the MHRA seeks to eliminate.”

Though the Court further concluded that LaMont’s particular claim was properly dismissed because the conduct she complained of was not severe and pervasive, its larger holding that plaintiffs may state a claim for hostile work environment outside of sexual harassment will make it easier for employees to find relief for hostile work conditions.