The court heard the case of Nancy Drew Suders, who claims she had no choice but to quit a well-paying job as a dispatcher with the Pennsylvania State Police.
Day in and day out, Suders claims, her male co-workers taunted her with lewd talk about sex with animals and worse. Suders claims one officer repeatedly grabbed his crotch in front of her and others told dirty jokes.
After five months, Suders quit and sued for alleged sexual harassment.
"She was subjected to horrendous conditions at work," and got nowhere when she sought help within the police agency, her lawyer, Donald Bailey, argued to the court.
Although perhaps sympathetic to Suders herself, several justices seemed unwilling to redraw complicated rules for sexual harassment lawsuits. In the past, the court has said companies can be liable for workplace harassment, even if top managers didn't know about the behavior, when it results in "tangible employment action" against the harassed worker, like firing or demotion.
Suders' case asks, in effect, if quitting under duress is the same as getting fired.
The state of Pennsylvania and business groups want the high court to overturn a lower court's ruling in Suders' favor.
The approach taken by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals "results in prolonged uncertainty about the legal rights and obligations of both employers and employees," state lawyers argued in a court filing.
The state and its backers argued that under existing standards, employers have a defense to suits like Suders' if they have a policy against sexual harassment, a complaint procedure and an education program for employees.
Suders was aware of the state's anti-harassment policies and procedures to complain but sought no help until two days before she quit, lawyers for the state argued.
Although Suders' allegations are presumed to be true for the purposes of this case, the lawyers noted that Suders' former supervisors and co-workers deny them.
Her supervisors said she was disorganized, often late for work and overwhelmed by the duties.
Suders finally quit in 1998 after she was accused of stealing results of a computer test that her supervisors told her she had failed. She was not charged.
If the high court backs Suders, employers worry they'll have to conduct expensive reviews each time someone quits, to protect themselves from sexual harassment lawsuits.
Civil rights groups argued in friend of the court papers that workers who feel forced to quit should not lose their legal rights.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received about 13,000 sexual harassment complaints in fiscal year 2003. .
During the same year, the EEOC and affiliated local and state agencies resolved some 14,000 complaints. Roughly 46 percent were found without to have no reasonable cause for a decision, and almost a quarter of the cases were closed for administrative reasons. Charges were deemed to have merit in about 29 percent of cases, resulting in $50 million in settlements.
The case is Pennsylvania State Police v. Nancy Drew Suders, 03-95.