By Jean Boler |
Proving Sexual Harassment Has Been Nearly Impossible
In November 2017, I wrote a commentary in the Minneapolis Star Tribune entitled “When it Comes to Sexual Harassment, the Doors to the Courthouse are shut.” I was referring to the impossibly high bar courts have set for women to prove that sexual conduct at their workplace substantially interfered with their employment. Judges were requiring such conduct to meet a “severe or pervasive” standard that required conduct to be “extreme” and “so intimidating, offensive or hostile that it poisoned the work environment.”
What kind of conduct do the courts think a woman should just shrug off and get on with her job? Based on actual cases that were dismissed, it includes:
- Being regularly called “bossy,” “bitchy,” “abrasive,” “dumb,” and a “stupid f*ing bitch.”
- Being grabbed from behind by a coworker who wrapped his hands around her breasts, and pressed and held his genitals against her buttocks, while other coworkers stood around and laughed.
- Having a supervisor rub the employee’s shoulders weekly for months, call her “baby doll,” imply that she would advance faster if she got along with him, and call her from Florida to tell her she should be in bed with him.
Not surprisingly, a 2007 study showed that 70% of discrimination claims are dismissed by judges without ever going to a jury.
There Is Hope
Now, thanks to the #MeToo movement and some sensible female legislators from both parties, there is hope in the state of Minnesota that the state law against harassment will finally be enforced the way it was always meant to be. A bipartisan bill is now being considered to set a less-restrictive standard than “severe or pervasive” for what constitutes actionable sexual harassment.
Recognizing that the current bar is so high that it discourages legitimate complaints, House Majority Leader Joyce Peppin, R-Rogers, who chaired the House’s Subcommittee on Workplace Safety and Respect, is sponsoring a bill that would amend the Minnesota Human Rights Act to specifically say that a hostile work environment “does not require that the conduct or communication be severe or pervasive.”
“We’re untying the hands of the judges,” Peppin said about the bill. Identical bills were introduced by DFL Minority Leader Melissa Hortman in the House and Sen. Karin Housley, R-St. Mary’s Point, in the Senate. “This would be the Legislature saying we meant what we said years ago when we created a cause of action for sexual harassment,” Hortman said.
The Legislators were reportedly shocked at the descriptions of what some women endured on the job, only to be advised that the conduct did not meet the “severe or pervasive” standard.
Finally, the Courthouse doors may begin to creak open again!
Let Us Help
Have you been sexually harassed at work? Contact us to review your situation with us confidentially and consult with our experienced firm to fully evaluate your options. We are always here to advocate for your rights to a safe and harassment-free workplace.
Schaefer Halleen senior attorney Jean Boler has worked on class action discrimination cases throughout her career, including the first sexual harassment class action: Jenson v. Eveleth Mines, which later became the subject of the book Class Action and the movie North Country.