Court: Offensive, but infrequent, harassment does not a hostile workplace make

You’re a female janitor at Elk River High School. Your boss, a man, prohibits women from talking to each other, tells the male janitors he doesn’t want women on his crew, says “women have their place — the kitchen and the bedroom,” and says Elk River High School is not the place for women.

Is this a hostile work environment under Minnesota law?

This week, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled it’s not.

In ruling in the case of Carol LaMont, the Supreme Court overturned lower courts’ rulings that under the Minnesota Human Rights Act, a claim of a hostile work environment cannot be based on harassing conduct that’s not “sexual” in nature.

“One type of behavior that can alter a female employee’s conditions of employment, amounting to discrimination, is conduct that amounts to sexual harassment,” Justice Helen Meyer wrote in her opinion. “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.”

But in awarding LaMont that victory, Justice Meyer ruled that the actions in Elk River are not a hostile work environment because it wasn’t severe enough. It said the boss’ comments were “offensive, but infrequent,” and that they were not physically threatening, severe, or intimidating. Meyer also said the statements, while abusive, did not appear to have “unreasonably interfered with her ability to do her job.”

But in a dissent, Justice Alan Page said that LaMont’s boss directed his comments at LaMont “because she was a woman. When treatment ‘is directed at female employees because of their womanhood, female employees are faced with a working environment different from the working environment faced by male employees.’”

Page also disputed Meyer’s observation that the the boss — Doug Miner — also subjected men to harassing behavior. Page called the determination “troubling.”

“An employee subject to discriminatory conduct by ‘an equal opportunity harasser’ is nevertheless protected by the MHRA,” Page wrote.

Page said the Supreme Court’s standard applied in this case will not “‘secure for persons [in Minnesota] freedom from discrimination’ in employment because of one’s sex.”

Here’s the full opinion.