The Supreme Court expanded federal civil rights law Wednesday to prohibit workers and supervisors from sexually harassing people of the same sex.
The unanimous decision was one of the most anxiously awaited of the term and is enormously important because it gives a whole group of people the right to turn to federal courts if they believe they were harassed because of their sex.
The issue long has divided appeals courts across the country. Several had refused to hear claims of samesex harassment or said employees could sue only if their harasser is a homosexual.
In its opinion, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, the high court said a person’s gender or sexual orientation doesn’t matter. The critical issue under federal civil rights law, the court said, is whether a person was singled out and discriminated against because of his or her sex.
“We hold today that nothing in (the law) necessarily bars a claim of discrimination ‘because of … sex’ merely because the plaintiff and the defendant … are of the same sex,” the court said.
The Clinton administration had urged the court to rule that same-sex harassment is illegal. Women’s organizations and gay-rights groups also had followed the case closely and hailed the decision.
“The court made clear that the focus has been - and should continue to be - on the conduct, not the sex, of the harasser,” said Beatrice Dohrn, legal director of the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund.
The decision was the first of four sexual-harassment cases the court is considering this term and bolstered organizations that are urging the court to more flatly prohibit the conduct. They noted that the opinion, by a conservative justice such as Scalia, was unanimous and contained reasoning that could apply in the other cases.
“This case underscores that the issue is discrimination,” said Martha Davis, legal director of the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, which is involved in one of the cases. “This is not an issue that divides folks, liberal and conservative.”
Later this term, the court will consider the scope of an employer’s liability for a worker’s harassment, and whether school districts are liable for a teacher’s harassment of a student. And it will take up a Chicago case that asks whether a person can sue for harassment if he or she refused sexual advances, but suffered no adverse employment consequences.
The ruling was a victory for refinery worker Joseph Oncale, who sued his employer and three colleagues after they allegedly sexually harassed and assaulted him on an oil rig off the Louisiana shore.
But Oncale’s suit never made it to a jury. A judge swiftly ruled he had no claim, and a federal appeals court agreed, holding that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act does not prohibit people from sexually harassing others of the same sex.
With Wednesday’s ruling, Oncale’s case now goes back to the federal district court for a trial.
“He’s very happy,” attorney Nicholas Canaday III said of his client’s reaction to the decision. “As he said, this morning he didn’t have a claim and this afternoon he does.”
In reversing the lower court, the Supreme Court pointed to the plain language of Title VII, which flatly prohibits discrimination in employment because of a person’s race, color, sex or national origin.
The court in 1986 said sexual harassment could be illegal discrimination if the plaintiff was harassed “because of” her sex and, in its ruling Wednesday, the court said the law “protects men as well as women.”
“We see no justification in the statutory language or our precedents for a categorical rule excluding same-sex harassment claims from the coverage of Title VII,” Scalia said.
Oncale’s employer had argued that allowing such claims would open the floodgates for frivolous lawsuits and transform Title VII into a general “civility code” for the American workplace.
But the court said that risk “is no greater for same-sex than for opposite-sex harassment and could be averted by paying careful attention to the statute and putting the behavior in context.
“We have never held that workplace harassment, even harassment between men and women, is automatically discrimination because of sex merely because the words used have sexual content or connotations,” the court said.
Instead, the key issue is whether members of one sex are treated differently in employment than members of the other sex and whether the conduct is so severe that it creates an abusive work enviroment.
In the male-female cases of harassment, for example, judges could easily determine that people were being treated differently if the conduct involved proposals of sex, the court said. Presumably, those proposals would not have been made to someone of the same sex.
The same inference could be made, the court said, to a person alleging same-sex harassment if there were evidence that the harasser was a homosexual.
“But harassing conduct need not be motivated by sexual desire to support an inference of discrimination on the basis of sex,” the court said.