Supreme Court decides Lake County sexual harassment caseThe Minnesota Supreme Court has sent a case back to the trial court to determine whether a Two Harbors businessman sexually harassed three women employees, but two of the justices issued strong dissents and said they believe the women already proved their case.
By: Mark Stodghill, Lake County News Chronicle
The Minnesota Supreme Court has sent a case back to the trial court to determine whether a Two Harbors businessman sexually harassed three women employees, but two of the justices issued strong dissents and said they believe the women already proved their case.
In his dissent, Supreme Court Associate Justice Paul Anderson said the court is sending a message to Minnesota citizens that victims of workplace sexual harassment will have a harder time finding justice in state courts.
Jennifer Moyer, Jaime Rasmussen 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 the businesses’ owner, Brian Zapolski.
In the 2011 court trial in State District Court in Two Harbors, Judge Michael Cuzzo 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.
However, Cuzzo determined that Zapolski’s conduct did not rise to the level of unwelcome sexual harassment under the Minnesota Human Rights Act. The women took that decision to the Minnesota Court of Appeals.
In July, the Court of Appeals ruled that Cuzzo erred in determining that Zapolski didn’t sexually harass the women employees. The appeals court said that Zapolski’s conduct toward Moyer, Rasmussen and Reinhold more than met the standard of sexual harassment and ordered that Cuzzo determine what compensatory and punitive damages to award the women.
Zapolski appealed that decision to the state Supreme Court, leading to the decision released on Wednesday, which again sends the case back to Cuzzo to determine.
The 51-page ruling concluded that two separate errors of law “infected the district court’s determination that the employees did not prove their sexual harassment claims. We are not able to ascertain exactly how the two errors of law impacted the district court’s decision to dismiss the employees’ claims. Accordingly, we remand to the district court to reevaluate the evidence using the correct legal standard.”
In their dissents, Anderson and Supreme Court Associate Justice Wilhelmina Wright wrote that justice for the women should not be denied. Associate Justice Alan Page joined the dissenters in a 4-3 decision.
Wright wrote: “If the conduct at issue in this case does not unmistakably violate MHRA, I shudder to consider both the degrading conduct that any employee must endure in a Minnesota workplace and the unreasonably burdensome actions she must take to prove that her workplace was hostile so as to vindicate her legal right to be free from a hostile work environment.”
Anderson, who retires at the end of the month after 20 years on the state’s high court, strongly criticized the majority opinion written by Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea.
Anderson wrote: “Given the nature and scope of the error being made today, I conclude … something more needs to be said about the message the majority delivers to Minnesota’s citizens, whether those citizens are male or female, young or old, rich or poor.
“The unfortunate consequence of the majority’s opinion may well be that offensive and repulsive sexual misconduct in the workplace, like Zapolski’s verbal and physical misconduct, will be much more difficult to curtail in Minnesota and that many victims of similar misconduct will be left without a remedy under the law.”
Duluth attorney Tom Andrew, who represents the three women, echoed Anderson’s words.
“I’m afraid this opinion sets back the effort to end sexual harassment in the workplace in Minnesota,” Andrew said. “As Justice Anderson is retiring after 20 years as an appellate judge, I am retiring after 46 years as an employment trial attorney. I share with Justice Anderson his concerns that this opinion will make it more difficult for employees who have been sexually harassed in the workplace to find justice in Minnesota court rooms.”
While Cuzzo will determine whether Zapolski’s business is liable for hostile work environment sexual harassment claims, the Supreme Court ruled that he cannot be held individually liable as an aider and abettor under the Minnesota Human Rights Act.
Duluth attorney Joe Roby handled Zapolski’s appeal to the Supreme Court.
“First, Mr. Zapolski is grateful that he was found not personally liable,” Roby said of the Supreme Court decision. “My second comment is that the potential liability of the two companies is now an open question for reconsideration by Judge Cuzzo.”