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Digest of EEO Law, Volume XI, No. 5

FEDERAL HIGHLIGHTS

I

U.S. SUPREME COURT RULES SAME- SEX HARASSMENT IS COVERED BY TITLE VII

Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, Inc., et al, 118 S.Ct. 998 (March 4, 1998).

In this private sector case, the U.S. Supreme Court held that sexual harassment by persons of one sex against persons of the same sex is actionable under Title VII. Plaintiff, who was employed as one of an eight-man crew on an offshore oil rig, claimed that he was forcibly subjected to sex-related, humiliating actions against him by certain coworkers. He eventually quit, and stated that he did so to avoid being raped or forced to have sex. In an opinion affirmed by the Fifth Circuit, the district court held that a male has no cause of action under Title VII for harassment by male coworkers.

The Supreme Court held that nothing in Title VII necessarily bars a sex discrimination claim merely because the plaintiff and the defendant are of the same sex. The Supreme Court rejected an argument that coverage of same-sex harassment would turn Title VII into a "general civility code" for the workplace. A plaintiff still must prove that the conduct at issue was discrimination because of sex, stated the Court. In addition, the Court noted that Title VII does not reach ordinary socializing, but rather forbids only behavior "so objectively offensive as to alter the conditions' of the victim's employment." The Supreme Court reversed the judgment below and remanded the case for further processing.

II

AGE DISCRIMINATION FOUND

Boehms v. Tennessee Valley Authority, 139 F.3d 452 (5th Cir., April 15, 1998).

The agency reorganized in 1991, downsizing its 15 district offices into 13 customer service centers. The district manager position was abolished, and a new, higher- level position of Customer Service Manager was created. At the time, plaintiff was a district manager. He applied for a CSC manager position in 1992, when he was 55 years old. One of his former subordinates, 32 years old, was offered the job. Plaintiff was offered a lower-level position of operations manager, but he deemed the offer a demotion and declined it. He was placed in the Employee Transition Program, which enabled him to remain with the agency for six months while seeking similar employment. While in the ETP, he twice rejected offers of an operations manager position. He was unsuccessful in finding suitable employment, and retired in late 1992. Plaintiff filed suit alleging age discrimination. He presented evidence that of the district managers who were under his supervisor's authority, all of those younger than 45 were offered a CSC position, while all of those older than 45 were not. Other evidence included notes the supervisor used in his interview of plaintiff reminding the supervisor not to talk about age. The agency in its defense argued that plaintiff was not qualified to be a CSC manager, and showed that he was given a negative evaluation by that same supervisor in 1991.

The district court found plaintiff's nonselection to be discrimination on the basis of age. The court awarded back pay with an end-date of plaintiff's retirement. As the circuit court noted, the district court was mindful of this limited recovery in awarding plaintiff attorney's fees. Plaintiff appealed only the end-date of the back pay award. The agency cross-appealed, arguing among other things that the district court was improperly "second-guessing" the agency's business judgment. In addition, the agency appealed the district court's finding that plaintiff had adequately mitigated his damages during the time between his nonselection and his retirement. The circuit court acknowledged that the ADEA should not transform courts into personnel managers, but decided that in this case, there was considerable evidence to support a finding of age discrimination. The circuit court termed the 1991 evaluation on which the agency relied "overblown, if not disingenuous..." The court pointed to countervailing evidence which showed that plaintiff's work as district manager had been viewed as commendable, and that his duties in that position were virtually identical to the CSC Manager duties. The circuit court also found that plaintiff adequately mitigated his damages. The proper measure was plaintiff's attempts to obtain work that was substantially equivalent to the CSC Manager position, stated the court, and not his failure to accept positions that would merely better his ETP status.

III

IMPROPER DEFINITION OF HOSTILE WORK ENVIRONMENT MANDATED REMAND

Davis v. United States Postal Service, 142 F.3d 1334 (10th Cir., May 7, 1998).

An employee who agreed to be an informant in a drug-trafficking investigation was detailed for her protection to the Communications Department in a different work facility. There she was subjected to physical sexual overtures from a coworker, and she contacted the agency's EEO office. At some point thereafter, the agency transferred the coworker. However, the agency also notified plaintiff that she was to be transferred back to her permanent position. Plaintiff asked to continue her detail at the Communications Department because of the hostility she expected from her former coworkers, and because of the resulting stress. However, the agency refused on the grounds that a nationwide reorganization required the return of all detailed employees to their permanent positions. Rather than returning to work at her permanent facility, plaintiff took leave. She also filed a civil action alleging, among other charges, a sexual harassment hostile work environment at her Communications Department location.

The district court dismissed her suit. With respect to her hostile environment claim, the court granted judgment to the agency. The district court decided that plaintiff could not show that the conduct in the workplace was sufficiently severe to meet the hostile environment standard, an opinion that was rejected on appeal. The circuit court stated that the law does not require a plaintiff to show a serious effect to her well-being in order to show a hostile environment. Nor does it require that a plaintiff quit or want to quit an otherwise desirable position. "Such a result would put plaintiffs in the untenable position of ... remaining in suitable employment or pursuing a claim ...", stated the court. The circuit court remanded the hostile environment claim back to the district court for further proceedings.