Supreme Court Clarifies Law on Sex Harassment

Times Staff Writer

Workers who quit because of “intolerable” sexual harassment may sue their employers as though they had been fired -- even if they did not formally complain about any abuse -- the Supreme Court said Monday.

However, employers may defend themselves against paying damages, the court said, if they can convince a jury that the worker unreasonably ignored the complaint procedure.

The decision clarifies the law on sexual harassment and makes it somewhat easier for victims of alleged harassment to bring their claims in court.


In particular, it cleared the way for a jury to hear a sexual harassment suit brought by a woman who quit after working for a few months at a Pennsylvania State Police barracks in McConnellsburg.

Nancy Drew Suders was hired in 1998 as a communications operator and said her three male supervisors subjected her to a “continuous barrage of sexual harassment.”

One, she said, talked to her repeatedly about sex with animals. A second sat on her desk and made gestures simulating oral sex. A third, she said, made obscene gestures as many as five or 10 times a night.

Suders said she had spoken with an employee who was supposed to take workplace complaints, but she was not offered any help.

After three months on the job, she said, she decided to quit when the three supervisors wrongly accused her of stealing documents from the barracks. She later sued the state police.

A federal judge threw out her complaint prior to trial because she had not formally gone to state police supervisors about the alleged harassment. When she appealed, the U.S. court of appeals in Philadelphia ruled that Suders had in effect been fired and was therefore entitled to win damages from her employer.


The two lower court rulings in her case illustrated the confusion about how to handle such complaints.

Ruling Monday in Pennsylvania State Police vs. Suders, the Supreme Court gave something to both sides in the area of employment discrimination law.

For plaintiffs, the court made it easier for employees who quit to win damages as though they had been fired or demoted for rebuffing a supervisor’s sexual advances.

Quitting in the face of such abuse is referred to as a “constructive discharge.”

“Under the constructive discharge doctrine, an employee’s reasonable decision to resign because of unendurable working conditions” is treated the same as being fired, said Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in an 8-1 decision. “The inquiry is objective: Did working conditions become so intolerable that a reasonable person in the employee’s position would have felt compelled to resign?”

If the answer is “yes,” employees may take their cases before a jury and win damages as though they had been fired, the court said.

However, such victims will not always win, Ginsburg added. Employers may nonetheless try to prove to the jury that they did everything possible to prevent sexual harassment of their workers. They can seek to show that they had an effective way for employees to report harassment, and that the alleged victim failed to alert the company or the agency about the problem.


Only Justice Clarence Thomas dissented. Employers, not the harassers, have to pay such claims, and he said victims of alleged harassment should have to prove the agency itself was negligent in failing to stop the harassment.

In keeping with the mixed result, lawyers for plaintiffs and management found something to like in the court’s opinion.

“This a significant victory for plaintiffs. It is the first time the court has recognized a ‘constructive discharge’ under Title VII,” the prime federal law against employment discrimination, said Michael Foreman of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “As a practical matter, once you find an employee was forced to quit, it will be rare when the employer can prevail.”

A lawyer for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said companies should adopt strong anti-harassment policies and encourage employees to complain when they have a problem.

“The court has affirmed that the most effective and efficient way to address harassing conduct in the workplace is to encourage employees to report such conduct before quitting,” said Stephen Bokat, the chamber’s general counsel.