Minnesota Supreme Court issues major decision regarding sexual harassment

On June 3, 2020, the Minnesota Supreme Court issued a much-awaited opinion concerning sexual harassment law. The court reaffirmed cases holding that sexually harassing behavior must be “severe or pervasive” in order to state a valid claim, but also pointed out that societal views of what constitutes severe or pervasive harassment have evolved to the extent that earlier cases setting a “high bar” to prove sexual harassment may no longer be relevant. The court also commented that sexual harassment claims should generally be decided by a jury following a trial, unless no reasonable person could find the behavior objectively abusive or offensive. The court’s opinion may make it easier for employees to bring sexual harassment claims and harder for employers to obtain dismissal of such claims.

The Kenneh v. Homeward Bound, Inc. case was brought by a program resource coordinator named Assata Kenneh against her former employer, a non-profit that operated residential care facilities for people with disabilities. Kenneh alleged that a maintenance coordinator named Anthony Johnson made sexually suggestive comments to her, invited Kenneh to his home, spoke to her in a seductive tone, and followed her to a gas station. Kenneh further alleged that she reported Johnson to Human Resources, but that, following an investigation that HR deemed inconclusive, Johnson continued to stop by Kenneh’s office frequently, block her door with his body, gesture with his tongue, and call her “sexy,” “pretty,” and “beautiful.”

Kenneh sued under the Minnesota Human Rights Act. The lower court dismissed the sexual harassment claim on summary judgment by finding Johnson’s behavior “boorish and obnoxious,” but not sufficiently severe or pervasive to create liability, relying upon a number of earlier cases requiring a “high bar” to prove harassment. The Minnesota Supreme Court reversed and remanded the case for further proceedings. The court reaffirmed that sexual harassment must be severe or pervasive in order to give rise to a viable claim and that Minnesota’s employment discrimination laws do not create a “general civility code” that outlaws all bad conduct. But the severe or pervasive standard “must evolve to reflect changes in societal attitudes towards what is acceptable behavior in the workplace.” As a result, many decisions over the past 30 years in which courts found that sexually harassing behavior was not severe or pervasive may no longer be relevant in Minnesota courts. Also, whether conduct is severe or pervasive is generally a question for a jury to decide at trial, not necessarily a determination that a judge can make on a pre-trial motion for summary judgment.

The case attracted significant attention from groups advocating both for employees and employers. No less than eight organizations submitted “friend of the court” briefs regarding their views of how the court should interpret Minnesota sexual harassment law.

The main takeaways from the case are as follows:

  1. Societal views of what is appropriate behavior in the workplace have changed and continue to evolve. Behavior that may have been viewed as “boorish and obnoxious” in the past may now be the basis for liability.
  2. Employers will have a harder time obtaining dismissal of sexual harassment claims brought under Minnesota law. The risks associated with sexual harassment cases and the settlement value of such claims may increase.
  3. Employers should re-visit their policies and practices regarding workplace harassment, train supervisors and employees about harassment issues, and seek legal counsel when sexual harassment allegations are made.

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A shareholder in the firm, Ansis focuses his practice on business litigation matters with a particular emphasis on employment, shareholder, intellectual property, franchise, fiduciary and other business disputes.