Today the Minnesota Supreme Court dismantled the system of summary dismissals in harassment cases under the Minnesota Human Rights Act to ensure that the moral arc of our civil rights laws will continue to bend towards justice. For years, courts summarily dismissed harassment cases before a jury could hear the case. The dismissals were based on archaic societal standards that reasonable people today would not tolerate. This decision reverses that course.
In the matter of Kenneh v. Homeward Bound, Inc., the Minnesota Supreme Court reversed the lower courts’ decision to dismiss the case before trial. While the Court did not reject the “severe or pervasive standard” that courts have read into the definition of sexual harassment, it rejected the practice of measuring the conduct against societal norms from other cases decided in past decades, stating the conclusions drawn by those courts does not bind Minnesota courts, as reasonable people today would likely not tolerate the behavior permitted in those cases.
After removing the old lens, the Court found that the totality of the circumstances of the facts alleged in Kenneh’s case established sufficient evidence to allow a jury to decide the case. According to Kenneh, she had been repeatedly propositioned for sex directly and harassed by propositions and physical conduct, including gestures that simulated oral sex. She presented evidence that, when she complained to Homeward Bound, it did not take actions to stop the behavior and the behavior continued.
The Court clarified that under our Human Rights Act, the “standard must evolve to reflect changes in societal attitudes towards what is acceptable behavior in the workplace.” The Court reaffirmed that the “essence” of the Human Rights Act is “societal change.” It stated that societal change is achieved by the redress of injury caused by discrimination.
Today’s decision changes the course the Human Rights Act, opening the doors again for harassment victims to have their cases heard. The Court’s decision also emphasized several important tenants:
- All the circumstances and context must be considered. Courts should not carve the work environment into a series of discrete incidents and then measure the harm occurring in each episode.
- Each case must stand on its own circumstances and not a purportedly analogous federal decision. The Court overruled analysis by the court of appeals that justified dismissal of a case by reference to old federal caselaw it used as a societal standard.
- A single, severe incident may support a claim for relief.
- Pervasive incidents, any of which may not be actionable when considered in isolation, may produce an objectively hostile environment when considered as a whole.
- Sexual harassment cases should generally be determined by a jury of peers and the courts should not usurp the role of a jury when evaluating a claim.
- Courts may not make credibility decision in a summary judgment motion or review. Weighing evidence is the role of the fact finder in a trial.
This is an extraordinary day for the people of Minnesota who seeks justice under Minnesota’s Human Rights Act.