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House passes bill that would change legal definition of sexual harassment

Rep. Kelly Moller makes closing comments during floor debate March 21 on HF10, legislation proposing to amend the definition of sexual harassment. The bill was passed 113-10. Photo by Paul Battaglia

The definition of sexual harassment in Minnesota law could be changed to clarify that sexually offensive behavior need not be “severe or pervasive” in order for it to be subject to litigation.

That legal standard, currently being used by Minnesota courts, has made it extremely difficult for those who have experienced sexual harassment to seek justice and accountability in the courts, said Rep. Kelly Moller (DFL-Shoreview). “This bill is necessary to ensure that workers are safe in their workplaces.”

She sponsors HF10, which, as amended, was passed 113-10 by the House Thursday. It now goes to the Senate where Sen. Kari Dziedzic (DFL-Mpls) is the sponsor.

Moller recounted the experience of Ami, who testified for the bill before a House division in February.

Ami was a server at a Twin Cities restaurant who was sexually harassed for more than year while working there while she attended law school, Moller said.

Modifying definition of sexual harassment 3/21/19

The harassment occurred weekly and included repeated unwanted touching by two male customers, repeated sexually suggestive language and a confrontation in the restaurant’s parking lot that she feared would become an abduction.

Ami said her managers did nothing to protect her from the abusers, and insisted she continue to serve the men.

When she went to court, her case was summarily dismissed because the judge determined the men’s behavior did not meet the “severe or pervasive” legal standard.

“Severe or pervasive is such a high bar that things like unwanted kissing, unwanted touching, requesting oral sex, and comparing female employees’ breasts are not considered severe or pervasive in our state,” Moller said.

Those examples came from recent court cases in the state, Moller said. And all of them were also dismissed, with summary judgments given to the employers.

“Victims were denied justice,” Moller said.

Rep. Linda Runbeck (R-Circle Pines) expressed concern that the change in definition would unfairly punish employers who were told of sexual harassment in their workplace and who took good faith steps to stop it. The bill would give too much legal latitude to accusers at the expense of employers, she said.

“The pendulum has perhaps swung too far,” she said.

Moller disagreed, and said case law as it has developed in Minnesota indicates that an employer “who makes a reasonable response to a claim of sexual harassment is not liable. … Employers really can control their destiny here.”

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