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Legal learning: What to make of the Lou's Fish House case?

Three women who worked for Lou's Fish House sued their employer and its owner, Brian Zapolski, claiming that he sexually harassed them in violation of the Minnesota Human Rights Act. The District Court judge in Two Harbors found that Zapolski touched one woman's posterior with his hands on two occasions, showed her and other employees a nude photo in a Playboy magazine, suggested that she watch a pornographic DVD, frequently asked her about her sexual position preferences, described his sexual desires in a "very explicit" manner, sought one employee's assistance in soliciting "other young women to have sex with him," and "bragged to her about his sexual prowess." All this made the employees feel "violated" and "embarrassed," according to court documents.

The judge nonetheless threw out the case, ruling that this conduct does not violate Minnesota law. The women appealed and the Court of Appeals reversed the decision, holding that the women are entitled to damages as a matter of law.

Last month (May 22) the Minnesota Supreme Court weighed in. It's hard to figure out what their decision means, so you might want to read it yourself:

It seems that they agree with the Court of Appeals that the law was broken. The fact that Zapolski directed inappropriate sexual comments at both male and female employees is not relevant, they say, nor is the fact that the employees did not lose pay or other benefits. Nonetheless, "We are not able to ascertain exactly how [these] errors of law impacted the district court's decision to dismiss the Employees' claims." So they sent the case back to Two Harbors to "reevaluate the evidence using the correct legal standard." Does that mean they have to go through another trial? Or just that the judge has to write another decision based on the evidence at the first trial?

Three Supreme Court justices (Wilhelmina Wright, Alan Page, and Paul Anderson) dissented, saying they could not understand why the case was being sent back to the District Court. Justice Paul Anderson called the refusal to rule "extraordinary," and said this:

"I believe 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."

We'll keep our eyes on this case and let you know what happens next.

James H. Manahan is a Harvard Law School graduate and was named one of Minnesota's Top Ten Attorneys. He now handles family law, wills and probate in and around Silver Bay, and does mediation everywhere. The opinions expressed in this column are those of its author.