50 for 50: Five Decades of the Most Important Discrimination Law Developments

Number 3: In 1986, The Supreme Court Recognizes Sexual Harassment Claims

It’s hard to imagine now, but from 1964 to 1986, “sexual harassment” as it is known today did not exist.  That all changed when the Supreme Court issued its landmark decision in Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson.  It was that case which for the first time gave employees the ability to bring a sexual harassment claim and changed the landscape of employment law forever.

The facts were pretty gruesome.  Mechelle Vinson worked for four years as a teller at Meritor  Savings Bank and over time, her supervisor, Sidney Taylor repeatedly demanded sexual favors, had sex with her 40-50 times, fondled her in front of other employees, followed her to the restroom and exposed himself, and forcibly raped her several times.

In 2014, there would be no question that misconduct like that, if proven, would lead to significant liability.  But this was the mid-1980’s.  After an 11 day bench trial, the District Court found in favor of the bank.  At the time, the law required a showing of quid pro quo harassment, namely sexual favors in exchange for favorable personnel actions and a showing that the employee suffered a tangible adverse action based on the refusal of sexual favors.

Vinson, however, was asserting what at the time was a novel claim – that her workplace had been so poisoned by Taylor’s sexual misconduct that it affected her ability to work.  She was claiming that she had been subjected to a sexually hostile work environment and that she could sue for “harassment” based solely on that hostile environment.

The case wound its way to the Supreme Court and it recognized – in a unanimous decision – that a “sexual harassment” claim could be based on a hostile environment created by sexual misconduct.  Title VII protected women from a workplace filled with sexually hostile behavior for the first time in the history of the United States.

This controversial decision was unanimous for two reasons.  First, it placed an important limitation on “hostile environment” claims:  in order to bring one, a plaintiff must prove that misconduct was “sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of [the plaintiff’s] employment and create an abusive working environment.” Second, the Court declined to rule on when employers would be held liable for the sexual misconduct of their employees – an issue which would haunt employment lawyers for the next 12 years to follow.  Were employers on notice of sexual harassment if an employee did not bring it to their attention? What if the harasser was a supervisor?

Regardless, the Meritor decision is arguably the single most important Title VII decision the Supreme Court has ever issued.  It would be an understatement to say that it opened a floodgate of sexual harassment litigation and has instructed employers on how to prevent and defend against them.

- Ferry Lopez

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