Minnesota and United States Supreme Court Breaking News: Federal Anti-Discrimination Protections for LGBTQ Employees, Standard of Proof for Minnesota Harassment Claims, and Sick and Safety Leave Affirmed
On June 15, 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court issued new workplace protections for employees who identify as gay, lesbian, or transgender. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination on the basis of “sex.” In the decision released on Monday, the Court held that “sex” includes gender identity and sexual orientation, and therefore extended Title VII’s anti-discrimination protections to those groups of employees. The Court held, “It is analytically impossible to fire an employee based on that employee’s status as a transgender person without being motivated, at least in part, by the employee’s sex… Discrimination ‘because of sex’ inherently includes discrimination against employees because of a change in their sex.” This is the first time that workplace discrimination against gay, lesbian, and transgender employees is illegal under federal law.
Although sexual orientation discrimination has long been prohibited under Minnesota employment law, prior to Monday’s decision, LGBTQ employees in 29 states had no protection from employment discrimination because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Those states include North Dakota and South Dakota. Now, LGBTQ employees may bring claims under federal law against employers who allegedly engage in workplace discrimination.
Recent Minnesota Supreme Court Cases
The Minnesota Supreme Court released two notable employment law decisions in June 2020. First, the Court upheld the current standard to prove sexual harassment under the Minnesota Human Rights Act. Second, the Court affirmed the City of Minneapolis’s sick and safety leave ordinance.
On June 3, 2020, the Minnesota Supreme Court affirmed in Kenneh v. Homeward Bound, Inc., that the Minnesota Human Rights Act requires that plaintiffs seeking to prove a “hostile work environment” must show that the alleged harassing conduct was sufficiently “severe or pervasive” to constitute sexual harassment. Under the Court’s decision, an employee must prove that “a reasonable person, considering the totality of the circumstances, would find the alleged behavior objectively abusive or offensive” to be successful in a claim of sexual harassment. Kenneh v. Homeward Bound, Inc., A18-0174. The Court also observed that, under this standard, it will be more difficult for employers to win summary judgment prior to trial in harassment claims brought by employees. The Court held that “zero tolerance” policies in employee handbooks do not hold employers to a higher legal standard in harassment cases, confirming longstanding Minnesota law that employee handbooks, with appropriate disclaimer language, do not constitute contracts between employees and their employers.
On June 10, 2020, the Minnesota Supreme Court held in a case brought by the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce that the City of Minneapolis’s sick and safety leave ordinance is not pre-empted by state law, and therefore remains in effect. Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, et al. v. City of Minneapolis, A18-0771. Further, the Court agreed that the ordinance may apply to employers located outside of Minneapolis, as long as their employees work within Minneapolis’s geographic limits. We previously circulated an alert, which you can find here, with tips on how to implement sick and safety leave.
Your Labor and Employment Law team stands ready to answer any questions you have about these developments. Please reach out at any time.