Minnesota Supreme Court updates harassment law in the context of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements

In a unanimous decision that has reverberations across the nation, the Minnesota Supreme Court recently clarified the legal standards for, and the analysis of, harassment claims. In that case, Kenneh v. Homeward Bound, Inc., the Minnesota Supreme Court effectively changed the law in several ways. First, Kenneh substantially lowers the bar for proving that a plaintiff experienced illegal harassment. Specifically, Minnesota courts must now consider the totality of the circumstances while construing the Minnesota Human Rights Act (“MHRA”) liberally. Second, Kenneh explicitly rejects the previously favored approach of deferring to Federal precedent under Title VII and similar employment law and civil rights statutes. This Federal precedent too often turned on an antiquated notion of what constitutes illegal harassment. Third, Kenneh emphasizes that whether a plaintiff experienced illegal harassment should generally be decided by a jury at trial rather than by a judge at summary judgment. In other words, plaintiffs in harassment cases ordinarily should no longer be denied their proverbial day in court.

In the course of so ruling, the Minnesota Supreme Court stated the governing legal standards and analysis in ways that should significantly help employees and other plaintiffs going forward:

  • The MHRA provides “more expansive protections” than Federal law does;
  • The MHRA must be interpreted broadly to ensure robust enforcement of civil rights protections;
  • A lower court’s interpretation of the MHRA will be reviewed de novo;
  • The standard for what is illegal harassment “must evolve to reflect changes in societal attitudes towards what is acceptable behavior”;
  • Finders of fact, normally a jury, “must consider the totality of the circumstances” when deciding whether illegal harassment has happened;
  • “A single, severe incident” or a series of non-actionable incidents can be enough to prove illegal harassment;
  • Every case “must be considered on its facts, not on a purportedly analogous federal decision”;
  • Summary judgment must be denied whenever a “reasonable person could find the alleged behavior objectively abusive or offensive”; and
  • Whether the conduct at issue is illegal harassment is “generally a question of fact for the jury.”

It seems evident that Kenneh results directly from the advocacy inspired by the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. In any event, the updated legal standards and upgraded analytical approach to harassment claims will undoubtedly reduce the amount of harassment in the workplace and beyond – whether sexual harassment, racial harassment, national origin harassment, religious harassment, or other illegal harassment. The revised legal standards and analytical approach established by Kenneh regarding harassment claims under the MHRA, moreover, should apply with equal force to retaliation claims and to discrimination claims under the MHRA. To conclude otherwise would undermine the compelling public policy codified by the MHRA: to prevent civil rights violations to the extent possible and, when they still occur, to provide meaningful remedies to those harmed by the violations. Those remedies include treble compensatory damages, punitive damages, and attorney’s fees.