March 4, 1998

Wednesday, March 4, 1998

WASHINGTON -- In a tersely worded decision authored by Justice Antonin Scalia, the United States Supreme Court today unanimously ruled that federal workplace laws bar sexual harassment between members of the same sex.

In so ruling, Justice Scalia said the Court was ending "the bewildering variety of stances" taken by federal courts in the past several years. Having concluded that same-sex sexual harassment was actionable under Title VII, the Court reversed the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit and remanded the case for further proceedings.

The Court's decision was hailed by the American Civil Liberties Union, which had filed a friend-of-the-court brief with Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, the National Women's Law Center, the National Center for Lesbian Rights and People for the American Way.

"This decision is a victory for all Americans, gay or straight, male or female," said Steven R. Shapiro, ACLU Legal Director. "The same rules must apply to all Americans and no one should have to suffer sexual harassment in the workplace."

The case, Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services Inc., involves a Louisiana man who claimed that he was sexually assaulted by two male supervisors and a male co-worker while working on an offshore oil rig. Specifically, Oncale alleged that they repeatedly taunted him about sex, and on one occasion held him down while they assaulted him in the showers with a bar of soap. He quit his job shortly after the shower incident and filed his lawsuit.

Oncale's lawsuit was dismissed by a federal district court in Louisiana, and in May 1996, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court's ruling that "Mr. Oncale, a male, has no cause of action under Title VII for harassment by male co-workers."

While finding that "male-on-male sexual harassment in the workplace was assuredly not the principal evil congress was concerned with when it enacted Title VII," Justice Scalia concluded today that "statutory prohibitions often go beyond the principal evil to cover reasonably comparable evils" like the "evils" alleged by Oncale. The Court further ruled that "harassing conduct need not be motivated by sexual desire to support an inference of discrimination on the basis of sex."

The Court also took this occasion to give a quick lesson on the law of workplace sexual harassment, a contentious issue in American society that is the subject of three other cases pending before the Court this term. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is the federal law that prohibits sexual discrimination and harassment in the workplace.

In rejecting the respondent's contention that liability for same-sex harassment would transform Title VII into a "general civility code for the American workplace," Justice Scalia wrote, "the prohibition of harassment on the basis of sex requires neither asexuality nor androgyny in the workplace; it forbids only behavior so objectively offensive as to alter the 'conditions' of the victim's employment."

"The Court is acknowledging that there is confusion about what is and what is not sexual harassment, and at the same time explaining that this is not rocket science," Shapiro said. "If people are guided by plain common sense, they will be able to recognize the line between appropriate and inappropriate behavior."

This case is Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, Inc. No. 96-56.

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