Change to sexual harassment legal standard gains backing

A tidy but substantial change to Minnesota law is in the works to make it easier for people alleging sexual harassment to push a case in court.

A bill introduced Monday with the backing of leading Republican and DFL legislators would clarify existing law so harassing behavior wouldn’t have to be deemed  “severe or pervasive” to run afoul of Minnesota’s human rights law.

The bill has 35 House sponsors, including House Majority Leader Joyce Peppin, R-Rogers. She said the law change would provide guidance to courts that are putting the brakes on cases without clear patterned conduct.

“The bar has been so high for so long for people to actually have a case that can get past summary judgment that I suspect there will be more cases,” Peppin said. “And I hope people who have faced harassment will be able to at least get their day in court, which they are not getting now because the cases are being thrown out so early.”

Minnesota could be the first state to make a law change of this kind, which could also mean it gets tested in court. The new standard would apply to cases filed after Aug. 1 and wouldn't be retroactive.

House Minority Leader Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, is on board with the law change and said Peppin’s involvement should help get it accomplished.

“We have a lot of people standing up today that are saying ‘I shouldn’t have to tolerate severe or pervasive conduct in the workplace. It should be a lesser standard than that,’” Hortman said. “We are adjusting the standard to match with the higher expectations that people have today in the workplace.”

She said laws passed years ago intended for the sexual harassment standard to be read this way, but said this bill just drives it home.

“This is the Legislature saying we meant what we said,” Hortman said.

In the Senate, the bill is being sponsored by Karin Housley, R-St. Marys Point. She is a candidate for U.S. Senate.

Separately, a House subcommittee has recommended changes to internal policies to battle bad conduct. The proposed rewrite of House sexual harassment policies follow the resignation of two legislators last year.

Under the changes, it would be clearer how allegations of hostile or offensive conduct are routed.

The House human resources department would have more power to hire outside investigators, without requiring permission from legislative leadership. Policies against retaliation would be strengthened. And third parties -- such as constituents, lobbyists, reporters and others at the Capitol -- would have an established avenue to lodge complaints.

One goal is to establish a dedicated phone number and email address to field complaints or concerns about harassment. The hotline would be monitored by qualified and trained staff members.

Peppin said it closes some of the gaps exposed when the two sexual harassment cases arose last fall while maintaining confidentiality and opportunities for the accused to put up a defense.

The revised policy doesn’t contain any prescribed punishment against lawmakers, who have sole authority to determine a legislator’s standing.

Hortman said she doesn’t think the proposal goes far enough to provide protection to members of the public who are subjects of harassment.

The proposed rule changes could be ratified as soon as Wednesday.

Before you go...

MPR News is dedicated to bringing you clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives when we need it most. We rely on your help to do this. Your donation has the power to keep MPR News strong and accessible to all during this crisis and beyond.