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Case of the Month: November 2010

$60,000 paid to settle charge of sexual harassment and reprisal by City of North Branch police officer

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Case number 53264, closed 11-9-2010

Respondent: City of North Branch
6408 Elm St., North Branch, MN 55065

Case Number 53265, closed 11-9-2010

Respondent: Stephen Forner c/o City of North Branch
6408 Elm St., North Branch, MN 55065

The following information is a summary of the department's findings and contains excerpts from other public documents relevant to this case.

Factual Basis of the Allegations — What the Charging Party Alleged

A female police officer employed by the City of North Branch, the charging party alleged that the Chief of Police, who was her supervisor, sexually harassed her, and subjected her to reprisal after she complained about the harassment. The charging party alleged specifically that:

  • On several occasions, her supervisor touched her inappropriately, including putting his arms around her, touching her neck and shoulders, and rubbing his body against hers in a sexual manner. He made a reference to her breasts and suggested she should be wearing a protective vest, and inquired about her private life;
  • After the charging party filed a formal complaint of sexual harassment with the City Administrator on January 31, 2008, her supervisor began telling her previous employer, a county sheriff's office, that she was "suing the pants off him." She was also told by a police sergeant that deputies from two counties might be reluctant to back her up on calls because she was a "head hunter" who was "out to sue everyone." She informed the City Administrator that her supervisor was spreading rumors about her, but was told that the city could not put a "gag order" on her supervisor, and that he was free to talk about her complaint;
  • In April of 2008, the charging party was told that an investigation into her complaint had been completed, and that her supervisor had been given two days unpaid suspension and a written reprimand to be kept in his personnel file. In the summer of 2008, she learned that he had received his two days' pay, and the reprimand had been removed from his file.
  • After she filed her complaint of sexual harassment, she was denied training opportunities that were available to other officers. She was also denied overtime pay, holiday pay and reimbursement for mileage; other officers continued to receive these benefits.
  • In December 2008, her supervisor gave her a performance review that contained accusations of lateness and other scheduling issues that had never been mentioned prior to the review.

Summary of the Commissioner's Memorandum — What the Department's Investigation Found

In answering the charge, the city denied that it had discriminated against the charging party in any way. In its investigation, the Department of Human Rights determined that there was insufficient evidence to support the charging party's claim of sexual harassment. There was insufficient evidence to support her allegations that her supervisor had engaged in inappropriate touching. While there was some evidence to indicate the use of double entendre humor, there was insufficient evidence to indicate the use of such humor was significantly intimidating, hostile or offensive, such that it interfered with the charging party's employment.

"Not all conduct reasonable people consider offensive amounts to illegal discrimination," the department stated, in finding "no probable cause" with respect to her sexual harassment claim. "The courts have found that offensive conduct relating to protected class status does not rise to the level of prohibited discrimination unless that conduct or communication is so severe or pervasive that it has the purpose or effect of substantially interfering with an individual's employment, or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive employment environment," the department stated.

However, the department found probable cause to believe that the Respondent had violated the Human Rights Act by engaging in reprisal after the charging party complained of sexual harassment. There was sufficient evidence to indicate that the charging party had experienced a series of adverse employment actions including the denial of her ability to take a squad car home after a shift, the denial of the use of a personal vehicle or a squad car to attend out-of-town trainings, and other policies that negatively impacted her employment, or would have dissuaded a reasonable person from pursuing a claim of discrimination. The respondent's stated reasons for these adverse employment actions were "pretextually false," the department determined. "The greater weight of evidence in this matter supports the conclusion that the respondent's actions were reprisal motivated by the charging party's protected activity," the department concluded.

Terms of Settlement

In a settlement negotiated with the Department of Human Rights, the City of North Branch agreed:

  • That the respondents and the League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust will pay the charging party and her attorney $60,000;
  • To rescind a two-day suspension the charging party had received on or about June 8, 2009, and to remove a copy of the suspension and all documents related to it from her personnel file;
  • To provide city employees with at least one hour of training on the fair employment provisions of the Minnesota Human Rights Act, including, specifically, the prohibition on discrimination on the basis of sex and the prohibition of reprisal/retaliation;
  • That the city will develop and adopt a written policy addressing its obligations under the MHRA, or if such a policy exists, the respondent city will review and revise its policy as needed to ensure compliance with the MHRA. The respondents deny that they violated the Minnesota Human Right Act (MHRA), and the settlement of this case does not constitute an admission of any liability of violating the MHRA or any other law, or of any wrongdoing.

The Department of Human Rights publishes information about selected cases and settlement agreements, including its "Case of the Month," as part of its mandate under the Human Rights Act to "educate to eliminate" discrimination. Settlement agreements do not constitute an admission of any liability, an admission of a violation of the Minnesota Human Rights Act or any other law, or an admission of wrongdoing by the respondents.