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How Sandra Day O'Connor changed sexual harassment law

Passage of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination based on sex. But a series of court decisions have shaped the legal details regarding sexual harassment.

One landmark decision was made in 1993, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 9-0 that individuals who sue their employers for sexual harassment do not have to prove they suffered psychological injury.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote the opinion for the Harris vs. Forklift case.

The facts of the case

In Harris vs. Forklift, a manager for a rental company sued her employer, claiming that the employer created an abusive work environment. The magistrate found that the company's president often insulted the worker, due to her gender, and he repeatedly made her the subject of sexual innuendo.

The appeal

On appeal, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee held that the manager's conduct did not create an abusive environment.

The district court found that some of employer's comments "offended and would offend the reasonable woman," but that they were not "so severe as to be expected to seriously affect her psychological well-being."

In focusing on the employee's psychological well-being, the court was following existing legal precedent within the circuit.

The U.S. Supreme Court steps in

The U.S. Supreme Court accepted the case, in order to resolve conflict among the circuit courts on the question of whether psychological injury must be proven, in order to establish that an abusive or "hostile" environment exists at a workplace.

O'Connor's words change the American workplace

O'Connor wrote that a victim of sexual harassment does not have to prove that he or she suffered a nervous breakdown.

"A discriminatorily abusive work environment, even one that does not seriously affect employees' psychological well-being, can and often will detract from employees' job performance, discourage employees from remaining on the job, or keep them from advancing in their careers," O'Connor wrote.

She continued: "The fact that the discriminatory conduct was so severe or pervasive that it created a work environment abusive to employees because of their race, gender, religion, or national origin offends Title VII's broad rule of workplace equality."

What does a hostile environment look like?

O'Connor wrote that whether an environment is "hostile" or "abusive" can be determined only by looking at all the circumstances. These may include:

  • 1. The frequency of the discriminatory conduct
  • 2. The severity of the discriminatory conduct
  • 3. Whether the conduct is physically threatening or humiliating, or a mere offensive utterance, and
  • 4. Whether it unreasonably interferes with an employee's work performance.

Sexual harassment law is always evolving. If you have questions about sexual harassment, speak with an attorney who has experience with these types of cases.

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