The Court ruled in a decision released Wednesday that same-sex harassment falls under the purview of the anti-bias law known as Title VII of the Civil Rights act of 1964. But the court made clear that someone claiming same-sex harassment must prove that the alleged discrimination was based on gender, and "not merely tinged with offensive sexual connotations."
By a unanimous vote, the court revived the federal lawsuit of a Louisiana man who says he was sexually pursued and harassed by his male supervisor and two other men during his four months working on a Gulf of Mexico oil rig.
"We see no justification. . .for a categorical rule excluding same-sex harassment claims from the coverage of Title VII," Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the court.
His relatively brief, seven-page opinion offered new guidelines for judges nationwide.
The law "does not reach genuine but innocuous differences in the ways men and women routinely interact with members of the same sex and of the opposite sex," Scalia wrote. "The prohibition of harassment on the basis of sex. . .forbids only behavior so objectively offensive as to alter the conditions of the victim's employment."
According to Sexual harassment Lawyer Barbara Brown, "What the Court said is that you have to look at the context in which the court said is that you have to look at the context in which the actions take place to figure out whether a reasonable person in that situation would be offended."
To illustrate, sports fan Scalia noted, "A pro football player would not feel abused if a couach smacks him on the buttocks at a game. The same behavior toward a secretary back at the office, male or female, could reasonably run the coach afoul of the law."
The term "harassment" does not appear in the text of Title VII, but the Supreme Court ruled in 1986 that harassment amounts to discrimination if it creates a "hostile environment" in the workplace.
In subsequent rulings, the justices said a hostile environment can come about not only by overtly sexual behavior but also by "discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult. . . sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim's employment."
A federal appeals court ruled that the federal law never applies to same-sex harassment, but when Joseph Oncale's case was argued before the nation's highest court in December it appeared clear the appeals court would be reversed.
"I don't see how we could possibly sustain the ruling," Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist said back then.
Oncale's lawsuit stems from his four months of work in 1991 as a roustabout assigned to a Gulf of Mexico oil rig with Sundowner Offshore Services.
His lawsuit against Sundowner and three men said he was sexually assaulted, battered, touched, and threatened with rape by his direct supervisor, John Lyons, and a second supervisor, Danny Pippen. Another defendant, coworker Brandon Johnson, was accused of assisting in one of the alleged incidents.
All three men named as defendants say no illegal harassment occurred, and portray their conduct as hazing or locker-room horseplay.
A national group of employers, the Equal Employment Advisory Council, told the justices that allowing same-sex harassment lawsuits under the federal law would convert it "into an unmanageably broad code of working behavior."
In today's decision, Scalia said concerns that Title VII will become "a general civility code for the American workplace" are misguided.
There was no specific mention in today's decision about harassment based on sexual orientation. Congress has never outlawed such bias.
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