When is Sexual Harassment a Hostile Work Environment in Minnesota?


Minnesota employees may wonder what qualifies as sexual harassment or an unlawfully hostile work environment. In Rasmussen et al. v. Two Harbors Fish Company et al. (2012), the Minnesota Court of Appeals recently explained.

Analysis from Court:

Under the Minnesota Human Rights Act, an unfair employment practice occurs when an employer, because of a person’s sex, discriminates against that person “with respect to hiring, tenure, compensation, terms, upgrading, conditions, facilities, or privileges of employment.” Minn. Stat. § 363A.08, subd. 2(3) (2010). Discrimination isdefined to include sexual harassment that creates a hostile work environment. Minn. Stat. § 363A.03, subds. 13, 43 (2010). The district court applies a four-factor framework, originally derived from federal cases applying Title VII law, to determine whether the women proved their claims of a hostile work environment under the human rights act. See Goins v. W. Group, 635 N.W.2d 717, 725 (Minn. 2001) (citing Carter v. Chrysler Corp., 173 F.3d 693, 700 (8th Cir. 1999)). It required each to prove that “(1) she is a member of a protected class; (2) she was subject to unwelcome harassment; (3) the harassment was based on sex, and (4) the harassment affected a term, condition or privilege of her employment.” Rasmussen v. Two Harbors Fish Co., No. 38-CV-10-201, slip op. (Minn. Dist. Ct. Oct. 5, 2011) (citing Frieler v. Carlson Mktg. Grp., Inc., 751 N.W.2d 558, 571 n.11 (Minn. 2008)).

Thus, the only issue on appeal is whether the sexual harassment affected a term, condition or privilege of the women’s employment, the fourth factor.

To determine whether this factor is met, we turn to the specific definition of sexual harassment in the Minnesota Human Rights Act: “Sexual harassment” includes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, sexually motivated physical contact or other verbal or physical conduct or communication of a sexual nature when:

  1. submission to that conduct or communication is made a term or condition, either explicitly or implicitly, of obtaining employment . . . ;
  2. submission to or rejection of that conduct or communication by an individual is used as a factor in decision affecting that individual’s employment . . . ; or
  3. that conduct or communication has the purpose or effect of substantially interfering with an individual’s employment, . . . or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive employment . . . environment. Minn. Stat. § 363A.03, subd. 43 (emphasis added).

Behavior that is actionable under a “hostile work environment” claim under subdivision 43(3) must be unwelcome, must consist of “sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, sexually motivated physical contact or other verbal or physical conduct or communication of a sexual nature,” and it must be sufficiently pervasive so as to substantially interfere with the plaintiff’s employment or to create a hostile, intimidating, or offensive work environment. Cummings, 568 N.W.2d at 424 (quoting the Minnesota Human Rights Act definition of “sexual harassment”); see also Beach v. Yellow Freight Sys., 312 F.3d 391, 396 (8th Cir. 2002) (addressing a hostile work environment claim under the act).

In assessing whether someone’s conduct substantially interfered with the women’s employment or created a hostile work environment, we “look at the totality of the circumstances, including the frequency of the discriminatory conduct; its severity; whether it is physically threatening or humiliating, or a mere offensive utterance; and whether it unreasonably interferes with an employee’s work performance.” Goins, 635 N.W.2d at 725 (quotations omitted). The work environment must be “both objectively and subjectively offensive in that a reasonable person would find the environment hostile or abusive and the victim in fact perceived it to be so.” LaMont, 814 N.W.2d at 22; see also Goins, 635 N.W.2d at 725.


Sexual harassment or a similar hostile work environment is a serious violation of employee’s rights under Minnesota law. Employees are encouraged to assert their rights if they are dealing with sexual harassment or a similar hostile work environment.

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