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Supreme Court hears sexual harassment case.

Supreme Court hears sexual harassment case

The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that sexual harassment of an employee by a supervisor violates Title 7 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits racial and sexual discrimination. In one opinion, written by Justice William H. Rehnquist and joined by four other justices, the Court held that sexual harassment that is "sufficiently severe or pervasive' to create "a hostile or abusive work environment' is a violation even if the sexual demands are not tied to employment benefits.

However, Rehnquist said companies are not "always automatically liable for sexual harassment by their supervisors.' According to his reasoning, an employer's lack of knowledge of sexual harassment by a supervisor "does not necessarily insulate that employer from liability,' but he did not issue a precise rule on employer liability. Rehnquist also said the appellate court had erred in prohibiting the defendant from presenting testimony intended to show that the employee's dress and conversation invited advances by the supervisor.

Justice Thurgood Marshall, joined by three other justices, agreed that "workplace sexual harassment is illegal,' but disagreed on the issue of employer liability. Marshall contended that employers should be held liable for sexual harassment by their employees "regardless of lack of knowledge or any other mitigating factor.' This position, which backed the guidelines adopted by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in 1980, was opposed by the present EEOC and the Department of Justice. In a joint brief, they argued that penalties should be imposed only on employers who know or should know of sexually offensive conditions or who do not provide reasonable means for bringing complaints to the employers' attention and seek remedies.

The case, Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, arose when Mechelle Vinson accused her supervisor, Sidney L. Taylor, of pressuring her into a sexual relationship. Taylor denied the charge, and the Washington, DC, bank contended that it was not aware of any sexual harassment by Taylor. A federal district judge ruled in favor of the defendants, but this decision was reversed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, leading to the Supreme Court appeal.
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Title Annotation:Mechelle Vinson case
Publication:Monthly Labor Review
Date:Sep 1, 1986
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