U.S. Supreme Court Ruling Related to Employer Liability for Sexual Harassment
Wednesday, June 23, 2004 3:00 PM

In a 8-1 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that employers can be held liable in sexual harassment cases when a hostile work environment forces workers to leave their job.

The case involved Nancy Drew Suders, a former dispatcher with the Pennsylvania State Police. Suders claimed that she had been continuously subjected to sexual harassment by three male supervisors and that forced her to quit her job.

According to the standard set by the Court, a former employee must show that her working conditions were so intolerable that a reasonable person would have felt compelled to resign.

The Supreme Court clarified a 1998 decision that establishes the broad guidelines for employer liability in sexual harassment on the workplace. According to the 1998 ruling, employers would be held strictly liable if the supervisor that engaged in harassing conduct takes a “tangible employment action” against the worker, such as firing the employee or reassigning her to an undesirable position.

In contrast, when the supervisor's harassment does not culminate in “tangible employment action,” the employer may present a defense by showing that it has a policy for reporting sexual harassment and that the employee did not make full use of that remedy.

The Court ruled that the employer defense may not be asserted if the employee resigned in response to a supervisor’s official act, as for example, a reduction in compensation.

Justice Clarence Thomas dissented, stating that an employer should be held liable only if he knew of the alleged harassment. In addition, the Justice noted that Suders had not presented sufficient evidence that the adverse employment action was taken because of her sex.

Compiled from James Vicini, "Court Sets Liability Rules in Harassment Cases," Reuters, 14 June 2004, available here.