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.


Written by:

Published In:

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

© Hirschfeld Kraemer LLP | Attorney Advertising

Don't miss a thing! Build a custom news brief:

Read fresh new writing on compliance, cybersecurity, Dodd-Frank, whistleblowers, social media, hiring & firing, patent reform, the NLRB, Obamacare, the SEC…

…or whatever matters the most to you. Follow authors, firms, and topics on JD Supra.

Create your news brief now - it's free and easy »

All the intelligence you need, in one easy email:

Great! Your first step to building an email digest of JD Supra authors and topics. Log in with LinkedIn so we can start sending your digest...

Sign up for your custom alerts now, using LinkedIn ›

* With LinkedIn, you don't need to create a separate login to manage your free JD Supra account, and we can make suggestions based on your needs and interests. We will not post anything on LinkedIn in your name.