The following U.S. Supreme Court case provides some guidance on the Court’s interpretation of the law regarding sexual harassment in the workplace.
SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
MERITOR SAVINGS BANK v. VINSON
477 U.S. 57 (1986)
(Case Syllabus edited by the Author)
Respondent former employee of petitioner bank brought an action against the bank and her supervisor at the bank, claiming that during her employment at the bank she had been subjected to sexual harassment by the supervisor in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and seeking injunctive relief and damages. At the trial, the parties presented conflicting testimony about the existence of a sexual relationship between respondent and the supervisor.
The District Court denied relief without resolving the conflicting testimony, holding that if respondent and the supervisor did have a sexual relationship, it was voluntary and had nothing to do with her continued employment at the bank, and that therefore respondent was not the victim of sexual harassment. The court then went on to hold that since the bank was without notice, it could not be held liable for the supervisor’s alleged sexual harassment.
The Court of Appeals reversed and remanded. The Court of Appeals noted that a violation of Title VII may be predicated on either of two types of sexual harassment: (1) harassment that involves the conditioning of employment benefits on sexual favors, and (2) harassment that, while not affecting economic benefits, creates a hostile or offensive working environment. The Court of Appeals held that since the grievance here was of the second type and the District Court had not considered whether a violation of this type had occurred, a remand was necessary. The Court of Appeals further held that the need for a remand was not obviated by the fact that the District Court had found that any sexual relationship between respondent and the supervisor was a voluntary one, a finding that might have been based on testimony about respondent’s “dress and personal fantasies” that “had no place in the litigation.” As to the bank’s liability, the Court of Appeals held that an employer is absolutely liable for sexual harassment by supervisory personnel, whether or not the employer knew or should have known about it.
1. A claim of “hostile environment” sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that is actionable under Title VII.
(a) The language of Title VII is not limited to “economic” or “tangible” discrimination. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Guidelines fully support the view that sexual harassment leading to non-economic injury can violate Title VII. Here, respondent’s allegations were sufficient to state a claim for “hostile environment” sexual harassment.
(b) The District Court’s findings were insufficient to dispose of respondent’s “hostile environment” claim. The District Court apparently erroneously believed that a sexual harassment claim will not lie absent an economic effect on the complainant’s employment, and erroneously focused on the “voluntariness” of respondent’s participation in the claimed sexual episodes. The correct inquiry is whether respondent by her conduct indicated that the alleged sexual advances were unwelcome, not whether her participation in them was voluntary.
(c) The District Court did not err in admitting evidence of respondent’s sexually provocative speech and dress. While “voluntariness” in the sense of consent is no defense to a sexual harassment claim, it does not follow that such evidence is irrelevant as a matter of law in determining whether the complainant found particular sexual advances unwelcome.
2. The Court of Appeals erred in concluding that employers are always automatically liable for sexual harassment by their supervisors. While common-law agency principles may not be transferable in all their particulars to Title VII, Congress’ decision to define “employer” to include any “agent” of an employer evinces an intent to place some limits on the acts of employees for which employers under Title VII are to be held responsible. In this case, however, the mere existence of a grievance procedure in the bank and the bank’s policy against discrimination, coupled with respondent’s failure to invoke that procedure, do not necessarily insulate the bank from liability.
243 U.S. App. D.C. 323, 753 F.2d 141, affirmed and remanded.
REHNQUIST, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C. J., and WHITE, POWELL, STEVENS, and O’CONNOR, JJ., joined. STEVENS, J., filed a concurring opinion, MARSHALL, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which BRENNAN, BLACKMUN, and STEVENS, JJ., joined.