Supreme Court to Rule on Sex Harassment at Work
Mechelle Vinson happily accepted her promotions and pay raises as an aspiring executive at Washington’s Meritor Savings Bank. What she did not accept was what she charged were two years of unwelcome sexual activities forced on her by a male supervisor.
Vinson finally brought a federal civil rights suit, which has reached the Supreme Court for its first full-scale review of sexual harassment in the workplace. The court’s decision, likely in the next few weeks, is expected to produce sorely needed new legal boundaries for employers and employees in dealing with a sensitive, often emotionally charged problem.
At issue is whether an employer may be held liable for sexual harassment by one of its supervisors--even if the employer knew nothing of such activity and had no opportunity to stop it.
A wide coalition of feminist groups, labor organizations and several states--including California--have joined behind the 31-year-old Vinson, contending that employers have a duty to guard closely against any sexual harassment of their workers.
Vinson, now enrolled in a nursing school, sees her suit as a means of establishing better legal protection for countless female workers who she believes suffer the same kind of discrimination.
“What was happening to me was wrong,” she said in an interview. “I could no longer hold it inside. My health started to deteriorate, I had loss of hair, lost appetite and couldn’t sleep. . . . I found I could no longer live under that kind of mental stress.”
On the other side, several business groups are supporting Meritor out of concern that a Supreme Court ruling against the bank could open employers to countless lawsuits and onerous damage awards.
Lawyers for the employers point out that more and more firms now specifically bar sexual discrimination, including harassment, and have instituted grievance procedures, training and education programs to combat it. But if Vinson’s suit is upheld, they say, it could force them into the nearly impossible task of trying to police even the most innocent office romance.
“Employers would be held liable for essentially private conduct that happens to take place in the workplace or involves other employees, without the company’s knowledge,” said Dannie B. Fogleman, an attorney representing the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “To protect themselves, employers would have to strictly prohibit any form of liaison between employees.”
The Vinson case represents new and largely uncharted territory for the justices. Whatever its social history, sexual harassment only recently has been recognized as a legal issue, and there is little precedent to guide the court.
A Workplace Prohibition
Federal civil rights statutes prohibit sex discrimination in the workplace, but not until 1980 did the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, as the law’s enforcer, issue guidelines specifying sexual harassment as a form of discrimination.
The EEOC defines sexual harassment in terms of physical conduct, verbal abuse (such as obscene comments) or repeated unwelcome invitations to social or sexual activity. Such misconduct, whether or not it is tied to a victim’s economic gain or loss, violates the law when it interferes with work performance or creates an “intimidating, hostile or offensive working environment,” the EEOC says.
Vinson began working for the Meritor Savings Bank in 1974, when it was known as Capital City Federal Savings & Loan. She started as a teller trainee and advanced to assistant manager at one of its branches. “I worked very hard to get there,” she said. “I got my promotions through merit.”
Sued Bank and Supervisor
But in 1978, after consulting with an attorney, she brought her sex harassment suit against the bank and Sidney Taylor, the branch manager who was her supervisor. The next day she notified the bank she was taking sick leave and did not return to work. The bank eventually fired her.
At trial, Vinson testified that she had up to 50 unwelcome sexual contacts with Taylor over a two-year period--including being forced to have sex inside the bank vault. She submitted, she said, for fear of losing her job. She said she did not report the harassment because, under bank procedures, her complaint would have been filed first with Taylor.
Taylor, who is still a bank employee, denied that he made any sexual advances toward Vinson. In fact, he said, he resisted her advances.
Meritor contended that any sexual activity had been with Vinson’s consent and that, in any event, the bank was not responsible. To counter Vinson’s claim that she was an unwilling victim, the defendants also presented evidence that she wore provocative clothing to work and discussed bizarre sexual fantasies with fellow employees.
After an 11-day trial, U.S. District Judge John Garrett Penn found against Vinson on all counts. If any relationship existed between Vinson and Taylor, the judge held, it was consentual. Whatever the case, he said, the bank could not be held liable.
But a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, in an opinion by Judge Spottswood W. Robinson III, overturned the decision.
The bank could be held liable, the panel said, and furthermore should not have been allowed to present evidence suggesting Vinson was a willing participant in any sexual activity. Whether Vinson volunteered her affections “had no materiality whatsoever,” the judges said, because a female employee need not prove resistance to sexual overtures in order to demonstrate sex discrimination.
On the other hand, the panel continued, Vinson should have been allowed to present witnesses she said would testify that Taylor harassed other female employees at the bank as well.
Bank Sought Rehearing
The bank sought a rehearing before the full, 10-member appeals court but was rejected. Dissenting, Judge Robert H. Bork and two others said the three-judge panel’s ruling had made defense against claims of sexual harassment virtually impossible.
“By depriving the charged person of any defenses, (the ruling) means that sexual dalliance, however voluntarily engaged in, becomes harassment whenever an employee sees fit, after the fact, so to characterize it,” Bork wrote.
The bank then brought the case to the Supreme Court (Meritor vs. Vinson, 84-1979), contending that Congress, in enacting civil rights laws, had no intention of imposing absolute liability on employers in such instances.
Adopted Middle Ground
In a “friend of the court” brief, the EEOC adopted a middle ground. It agreed that unwelcome sexual advances may create a work environment that violates civil rights laws, but added that employers should not be held liable unless they know or have reason to know of a sexually offensive atmosphere.
Vinson and her allies countered that when a company supervisor creates a “discriminatory environment,” the firm should be held strictly accountable.
Vinson’s attorney, Patricia J. Barry of Grover City, Calif., believes the case is unusual not because harassment occurred but because Vinson was willing eventually to come forward with her allegations. Most female workers, after being forced into sexual relations, are too humiliated and intimidated to complain, Barry said.
‘Can Set a Moral Tone’
“If we win, it will protect women who face the loss of their jobs but who are afraid to sue because of all the difficulties,” Barry said. “The Supreme Court can set a moral tone for the nation, reaffirming protections for women in the workplace.”
The bank bases its case mainly on the contention that liability requires adequate notice. Such a requirement, it says, not only allows employers to correct a harassment problem before it worsens but also encourages victimized employees to speak up when harassment occurs.
“There is something very unfair about hailing an innocent employer into court for a problem that it was unaware of and would have corrected voluntarily,” Meritor’s lawyer, F. Robert Troll Jr., told the justices. “It is contrary to (the law) to hold an innocent employer automatically liable where the complainant has suffered in silence.”
Barry, arguing Vinson’s side before the court, contended that, contrary to its contention, the bank did receive notice because Vinson, in effect, had notified Taylor, its agent, of her objection to his attention.
“Sidney Taylor becomes ‘the bank’ because he is a supervisor,” Barry said. " . . . That she told him to stop was sufficient notice.”