John A. Klassen, PA Minnesota Employment Law Attorney
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Sexual harassment probe of lawmaker's office could spread

Some of the most horrifying sexual harassment cases in Minnesota involve hostile work environments. Unlike cases where an individual supervisor or co-worker is harassing an individual employee, hostile work environment cases involve a culture of harassment where supervisors tolerate or even join in with harassing one or more employees.

A lawmaker in another state was recently investigated for alleged sexual harassment of female staffers over a period of several years. Investigators released a report that accused him of a pervasive pattern of abuse, including the groping and harassing of at least eight female employees. But activists claimed the report didn't go far enough. Specifically, they called for investigators to look into allegations that other lawmakers were engaged in inappropriate relationships with top aides or were sexually harassing staffers. If true, these allegations could show an atmosphere of sexual harassment through much of the legislature.

Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, hostile work environment sexual harassment can be grounds for legal action when conduct is unwelcome, based on sex and severe or pervasive enough to create an abusive or offensive environment in the workplace. Courts consider whether the questionable conduct was verbal, physical or both; the frequency of the alleged conduct; whether the conduct was patently offensive or hostile; whether the alleged harassment came from a co-worker or a supervisor; and whether more than one person participated in the alleged harassment.

As in all sexual harassment cases, hostile work environment cases require the victim to meet a subjective and objective standard. This means that the worker subjectively believed the harassment was hostile, abusive or offensive, and that any reasonable person in their place would have felt the same.

Hostile work environment sexual harassment cases are sometimes technically difficult and often emotionally draining for the plaintiff. But they can be necessary for the cause of justice. Minnesota workers shouldn't be discriminated against at work because of their sex, and they shouldn't have to put up with a workplace that perpetuates sexual harassment.

Source: New York Daily News, "Damning email omitted from Vito Lopez sexual harassment report suggests Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver had inappropriate relationship with top aide," Glenn Blain, June 5, 2013

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