Tuesday, June 9, 2020
The Minnesota Supreme Court has reaffirmed the requirement that workers alleging they were subjected to a hostile work environment under state law prove that harassment was “severe or pervasive” in order to prevail.
The seven-member court in a unanimous decision on Wednesday rejected a bid by Assata Kenneh, who says nonprofit residential care facility operator Homeward Bound Inc fired her for complaining about sexual harassment, to lower the bar for plaintiffs to show that discrimination interfered with their ability to work.
To read the full story on Westlaw Practitioner Insights, click here: bit.ly/2Bz9E9oMinnesota's "severe or pervasive" standard was borrowed from jurisprudence developed under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the federal law barring workplace discrimination. Kenneh argued that the standard was confusing, and was not necessary because unlike Title VII, Minnesota law contains a precise definition of sexual harassment.But the court said the standard reflected a "common-sense understanding" that sexual harassment must be "more than minor" to create a hostile work environment.Homeward Bound hired Kenneh to work at a residential facility for people with disabilities in 2014, and two years later she transferred to a different facility and transitioned into a role as a program resource coordinator. Kenneh claims that in the few months after her transfer, the company's maintenance supervisor routinely made sexually-charged comments and gestures, including licking his lips and telling Kenneh she was "beautiful" and "sexy."Kenneh complained and while the maintenance supervisor denied her claims, he was told to cease the behavior and not to be alone with Kenneh. But the harassment did not stop, she says, and she was ultimately fired after asking for a more flexible schedule so she could avoid the supervisor.Kenneh sued Homeward Bound in state court in Minneapolis, accusing the company of creating a hostile work environment and retaliation in violation of state anti-discrimination law. Homeward Bound denied the claims and said Kenneh was fired over performance and attendance issues.A state judge in 2018 granted the company's motion to dismiss. He said the supervisor's conduct was "boorish and obnoxious," but that Kenneh had failed to meet the high bar of showing that it was either severe or pervasive.A mid-level appeals court last year affirmed. Kenneh appealed, arguing that requiring plaintiffs to prove conduct was severe or pervasive places a higher bar on them than the text of the state law. The law defines sexual harassment as "unwelcome sexual advances or communication of a sexual nature (that) has the purpose or effect of substantially interfering with an individual's employment."Kenneh's lawyers argued that the federal standard, which Minnesota courts began applying to state-law claims in 1986, has been applied inconsistently and created confusion, and was different from proving substantial interference.The Minnesota Supreme Court on Wednesday disagreed. Anti-discrimination law is not a "general civility code," Justice Anne McKeig wrote for the court, and the severe or pervasive standard ensures that only conduct that a reasonable person would find abusive or hostile is actionable.The case is Kenneh v. Homeward Bound Inc, Minnesota Supreme Court, No. A18-0174.