What is harassment?

Both Federal and State courts have adopted evolving definitions of what amounts to harassment in violation of civil rights and employment laws. Based on a series of decisions by the United States Supreme Court, the general understanding of harassment in the employment and civil rights contexts is unwelcome behavior based on sex, race, religion, or another illegal basis that is either frequent or serious enough to affect employment or other relevant conditions. See, e.g., Harris v. Forklift Systems, Inc., 510 U.S. 17, 22 (1993). Recoveries in such hostile environment cases can be significant even when the plaintiffs do not rely on expert testimony or even medical records to prove the existence or extent of damages. Rowe v. Hussman Com., 381 F.3d 775, 783 (8th Cir. 2004) (upholding the award of $500,000 in emotional distress damages to one plaintiff in a harassment case); Eich v. Board of Regents, 350 F.3d 752, 762-63 (8th Cir. 2003) (affirming the award of $200,000 in emotional distress damages for one plaintiff in a harassment case); Madison v. IBP, Inc., 330 F.3d 1051, 1054 (8th Cir. 2003) (upholding the award of nearly $270,000 in emotional distress damages to one plaintiff in a harassment case).

The Minnesota Supreme Court has decided two important cases in the past year that provide more clarity in some respects as to what conduct violates the law. In LaMont v. Indep. School Dist. No. 728, 814 N.W.2d 14 (Minn. 2012), the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that actions need not be overtly or explicitly sexual, racial, and so forth in order to be unlawful. In some ways, this ruling should not have been surprising because Federal courts established this point of law years ago. Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Serv., Inc., 523 U.S. 75, 80 (1998); Carter v. Chrysler Corp., 173 F.3d 693, 701 (8th Cir. 1999). More recently, in Rasmussen v. Two Harbors Fish Co., 2013 WL 2221487, _ N.W.2d _ (Minn. 2013), the Minnesota Supreme Court confirmed that harassment does not have to result in a pay cut, job loss, or other economic consequences to be actionable. In addition, Rasmussen reiterated the fact that sexually explicit behavior is directed at both men and women in a given workplace is not relevant to whether a hostile environment exists.

Whenever someone alleges harassment based on sex, race, religion, or some other illegal reason, the context of the conduct is key. Clark County School Dist. v. Breeden, 532 U.S. 268, 270 (2001); 29 C.F.R. § 1604.11(b). Consequently, recent decisions by Federal courts have declared that evidence that separate employees at different locations have been harassed by distinct employees is “highly probative” of whether a defendant knew or should have known about the harassment and whether a plaintiff endured a hostile environment – even when that plaintiff had no knowledge of those other acts. Sandoval v. Am. Bldg. Maint. Indus., Inc., 578 F.3d 787, rhrg. and rhrg. en banc denied 578 F.3d 787 (8th Cir. 2009). To seek assistance in determining whether harassment has occurred and, if so, to learn what can be done about it, experienced employment and civil rights litigators should be contacted.