Minnesota Supreme Court Adopts Federal Standards for Supervisor Sexual Harassment Liability

A divided panel of the Minnesota Supreme Court has adopted the broad federal standards for determining employer liability in a case brought under the Minnesota Human Rights Act for sexual harassment by a supervisor. Frieler v. Carlson Marketing Group, No. A06-1693 (May 30, 2008). The Court reversed summary judgment in favor of the employer and returned the case to the lower court.

The high court interpreted legislative changes made in 2001 to the Minnesota Human Rights Act as adopting the liability standards of two 1998 United States Supreme Court decisions addressing the issue of employer liability for sexual harassment committed by supervisors under Title VII. Burlington Industries, Inc. v. Ellerth, 524 U.S. 742 (1998), and Faragher v. City of Boca Raton, 524 U.S. 775 (1998). These cases:

  1. Permit a defense to employers who adopt and implement workplace policies against harassment; and
  2. Eliminate the employee’s obligation to demonstrate that the employer knew of a supervisor’s harassment.

The Minnesota Supreme Court also rejected Eighth Circuit precedent narrowly defining a “supervisor” in favor of a more expansive interpretation advocated by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. According to the EEOC, lead persons, who do not have the authority to hire or fire, nevertheless may be considered “supervisors” if they have the ability to influence employment decisions.

Left unanswered in the Court’s decision is the appropriate standard of liability in a co-worker sex harassment situation which also was affected by the 2001 legislative changes.

Following this decision, employers may face more claims based on their lead persons’ behavior. Employers should review their workplace anti-harassment policies and educate supervisors and employees on their obligations with regard to workplace harassment.