Harassment appeal changes ruling against Two Harbors businessmanA state district court judge erred in determining that a Two Harbors businessman didn’t sexually harass three female employees under the Minnesota Human Rights Act, and now the judge must determine what compensatory and punitive damages to award the women, the state Court of Appeals has ruled.
By: Mark Stodghill, Duluth News Tribune
A state district court judge erred in determining that a Two Harbors businessman didn’t sexually harass three female employees under the Minnesota Human Rights Act, and now the judge must determine what compensatory and punitive damages to award the women, the state Court of Appeals has ruled.
Jaime Rasmussen, Jennifer Moyer and Kathe Reinhold filed a sex discrimination case based on a sexual harassment hostile work environment against Two Harbors Fish Co., doing business as Lou’s Fish House; BWZ Enterprises LLC, doing business as B&R Motel; and their owner Brian Zapolski of Two Harbors.
To prove a hostile work environment claim for sexual harassment under the Minnesota Human Rights Act, a plaintiff must show that the defendant’s conduct was unwelcome, that it consisted of sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, sexually motivated physical contact or other verbal or physical conduct or communication of a sexual nature, and that it was sufficiently pervasive so as to substantially interfere with the plaintiff’s employment or to create a hostile, intimidating or offensive work environment.
After a 2011 court trial in Lake County District Court , State District Judge Michael Cuzzo issued an order dismissing the women’s claims, finding that the conduct, “even if totally true,” did not rise to the “level of unwelcome sexual harassment actionable under the Minnesota Human Rights Act.”
The women filed a motion to amend the findings, but the trial judge didn’t change his conclusion that the women failed to prove sexual harassment. That led to the plaintiffs successfully appealing the decision.
The Court of Appeals ruled that Zapolski’s conduct toward Rasmussen, Moyer and Reinhold more than meets the standard for sexual harassment.
The language and alleged facts presented in the case were so explicitly sexual that the Court of Appeals opinion contained a footnote explaining that the details of its decision were stated in “unvarnished fashion” because cases of discrimination often turn on their specific facts.
The panel said the district court found that Zapolski frequently made sexually inappropriate comments to Rasmussen, asked her about her sex life and used vulgar language in her presence; that Zapolski subjected Moyer to constant sexually harassing conduct; and began making offensive, sexually explicit comments to Reinhold starting on the first day that she worked for him.
“Zapolski’s behavior cannot be construed as anything other than ‘severe,’” the 27-page opinion stated. The appeals court remanded the case to the district court to determine compensatory and punitive damages.
Zapolski didn’t return a phone message left with a female employee of his fish house and his listed residential phone number was not in service Tuesday.
“We have read the opinion, we have met with our clients and we have under advisement what are our next steps,” said Joe Roby, one of the attorneys representing Zapolski and his companies. Roby said one of the options his office is considering is whether to petition the state Supreme Court for possible further review.
Tom Andrew and Jane Poole represented the women plaintiffs-appellants. They couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday.