Minnesota bill on sexual harassment legal standards advances

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — A Minnesota House committee approved a bill Thursday to make it easier for workplace sexual harassment victims to sue by lowering a legal bar that advocates say is too high.
Rep. Kelly Moller and other witnesses told a judiciary panel that Minnesota courts have adopted an unrealistically high legal standard that prevents many victims from pressing their claims in court. The state’s courts require that they prove the harassment was “severe or pervasive” for a case to succeed, borrowing a standard from federal law.
“This bill is necessary to ensure that workers are safe in their workplaces,” the Shoreview Democrat said. “As the ‘Me Too’ movement has highlighted, we need to change workplace behavior.”
Moller said the bill essentially returns the sexual harassment standards in the Minnesota Human Rights Act to what they were immediately after the Legislature enacted the law in the 1980s, before the state’s courts raised the threshold. She said “severe or pervasive” is such a difficult test that victims of unwanted kissing, unwanted touching and sexual comments don’t get to have their day in court, and that lawyers often dissuade their clients from even trying.
The committee sent the bill to the floor on a 16-0 vote. A nearly identical bill passed the House with wide bipartisan support last session but stalled out in the Senate. Its lead sponsor then was Republican House Majority Leader Joyce Peppin. This year it’s among the top 10 bills on the new House Democratic majority’s agenda , though it’s expected to meet more resistance in the Senate, where Republicans still have a slim majority.
One woman told the committee how she was stalked and harassed by two customers at least once a week for more than a year when she was working a restaurant server. She said her co-workers even thwarted an apparent abduction attempt in the parking lot one night. She said she repeatedly told her managers, but they required her to keep serving the men — even as their behavior escalated with repeated unwanted touching — because they kept requesting her.
“The managers routinely made me choose between being able to pay for rent and food, and being sexually harassed, assaulted and stalked, all while calling these men, ‘my stalkers,'” she said.
Nothing came of the woman’s lawsuit because the judge felt bound to follow the “severe or pervasive” standard even though the judge disagreed with it, employment attorney Sheila Engelmeier testified as she walked the committee through several disturbing cases that the courts dismissed on that basis. Engelmeier asked that reporters identify the victim only by her initials, A.S.K., to protect her privacy.
Opponents testified that nobody supports sexual harassment but that the bill would have unintended consequences and drive up liability insurance costs for businesses. Mike Hickey, the state director for the National Federation of Independent Business, said defending against a claim can easily cost a business $50,000 to $250,000 or more, and many companies aren’t covered.
“This could be enough to bankrupt some small businesses,” he said.
But Moller and Engelmeier told the committee that employers who act reasonably in response to complaints will be shielded from liability. Engelmeier said case law already provides that protection, but some Republican committee members said they would have preferred that the bill contain language explicitly stating that employers acting in good faith are safe.