On-the-job sexual harassment is illegal even if it does not affect its victim economically, the Supreme Court ruled today.
But the court stopped short of deciding just when employers should be held legally liable when, unknown to them, their supervisors sexually harass workers.
The justices unanimously concluded in a case involving a District of Columbia bank that a federal law banning sex discrimination in employment applies to sexual harassment that creates a "hostile environment."
The court thus upheld the standard adopted previously by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Writing for the court, Justice William H. Rehnquist said nothing in the federal law, known as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, "suggests that a hostile environment based on discriminatory sexual harassment should not be . . . prohibited."
The decision clears the way for new proceedings in a lawsuit filed against Meritor Savings Bank by Mechelle Vinson, a former assistant bank manager.
'Fear of Losing Her Job'
Vinson's suit contends that she was sexually harassed by her supervisor, Sidney L. Taylor.
Vinson was hired as a teller-trainee at the bank in 1974. She said she consented to have sex with Taylor in May, 1975, "for fear of losing her job." The affair, according to court documents, continued 2 1/2 years, but Vinson never told Taylor's superiors about it.
Taylor denied Vinson's charges and said they were made in retaliation for a business-related dispute between the two.
A federal trial judge threw out the suit after finding that Vinson was not contending that the alleged harassment had hurt her economically.
The U.S. Court of Appeals here reinstated the suit, ruling that the judge was reading the anti-bias law too narrowly.
The Supreme Court today agreed with the appeals court.
"For sexual harassment to be actionable, it must be sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim's employment and create an abusive working environment," Rehnquist said.
"(Vinson's) allegations in this case--which include not only pervasive harassment but also criminal conduct of the most serious nature--are plainly sufficient to state a claim for 'hostile environment' sexual harassment," he said.
But Rehnquist said the appeals court went too far when it ruled in Vinson's case that employers are always legally liable even if they did not know or could not have known about a supervisor's sexual harassment.
In another decision, the court ruled that state and local governments may not withdraw their employees from the nation's Social Security system.
The justices, in a 9-0 ruling, upheld a 1983 federal law designed to protect Social Security's economic integrity by barring state and local governments from pulling out.
That decision was a victory for the Reagan Administration, which said more than $3 billion could have been drained from Social Security by 1990 if state and local governments were allowed to withdraw.