Former Honor the Earth employee wins sexual harassment case

DULUTH — A former employee of environmental group Honor the Earth was the target of sexual harassment, a Becker County jury found Thursday.

Margaret Campbell first filed a lawsuit against the group in 2019, claiming she was fired after complaining that a colleague had sexually harassed her and some Native American boys in 2014 and 2015.

A jury this week awarded Campbell $750,000 for lost wages and emotional distress, for claims of sexual harassment, and two other claims that involved retaliation against her.

Honor the Earth is an Indigenous group known for its opposition to the construction of the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline built across Minnesota. The group is led by environmental activist and two-time candidate for vice president Winona LaDuke. She helped found it in 1993 along with members of the band Indigo Girls.

LaDuke said in a statement that Honor the Earth remains “committed to resisting all forms of sexual harassment, violence and assault” as it moves forward from the court’s decision.

“We and our communities are resilient,” she said. “We carry a 30-year history of courageous work, and we will take these lessons in moving forward towards a just and sustainable future.”

The case began nearly seven years ago. Campbell had initially filed a complaint with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights in January 2016 alleging she had been sexually harassed by a co-worker in 2014 and 2015, and that LaDuke and others in the organization failed to take her seriously when she brought the matter to their attention. She resigned under duress in February 2015.

The human rights agency completed its investigation of the complaint in 2018, concluding that there was “no probable cause” to show Honor the Earth was guilty of sexual discrimination or that it took punitive actions against Campbell because of her allegations.

The agency found that the alleged harassment was too old to pursue under the law and that Honor the Earth had nondiscriminatory reasons for terminating Campbell’s employment. Specifically, it cited evidence that she had violated the organization’s confidentiality rules by publicly speaking about her allegations before it had completed an internal investigation.

The human rights department noted that Honor the Earth had established a no-tolerance policy on sexual harassment and had at least temporarily cut its ties with the former co-worker of Campbell’s who was the subject of her allegations.

Campbell appealed. Human Rights Commissioner Kevin Lindsey upheld the findings, and Campbell had 45 days under law to pursue the matter in court.

Frank Bibeau, an attorney for Honor the Earth, challenged the suit on jurisdictional grounds, argued before Becker County District Judge Gretchen Thilmony in 2019 that the lawsuit belonged in tribal court because most of the environmental group’s activities take place on the White Earth Band of Ojibwe reservation in northwestern Minnesota.

Christy Hall, an attorney for Campbell, argued that Honor the Earth is subject to state laws because it’s incorporated as a Minnesota nonprofit.

Court records show Thilmony denied Bibeau’s motion to dismiss, and Honor the Earth appealed his decision. The Minnesota Court of Appeals in 2020 upheld the district court’s decision, and the case returned to Becker County court.

“We applaud [Campbell] for refusing to stay silent,” Hall said in a statement. “She reported the harassment to her boss, but rather than protect her the organization protected her harasser at her expense. But Margaret did not back down.”