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Mod 4 Brief
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964: Sexual Discrimination
Title and Citation: Meritor Bank v. Vinson, 106 S. Ct. 2399 (1986)
Type of Action: SCOTUS review of an Appellate Court decision in the District of Columbia Circuit for violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 sexual harassment/discrimination and employer liability.
Facts of the Case: Mechelle Vinson began a 4 year stretch of employment that began in 1974 with Meritor Bank. Shortly after her probationary period Vinson states that Sidney Taylor, her supervisor coerced her into a sexual liaison, she capitulated out of trepidation that if she did not, her employment would be adversely affected. Vinson had physical relations 40 to 50 times over the course of three years. During this time, Vinson testified that Taylor fondled her in front of other employees, followed her into the women’s restroom when she was in there alone, exposed himself to her, and forcibly raped her on several occasions. These activities ceased after 1977, respondent stated, when she started going with a steady boyfriend. Additionally, Vinson testified that because she was afraid of Taylor she never reported his harassment to any of his supervisors and never attempted to use the bank’s complaint procedure. In 1978, Vinson took an unexplained, extended leave of absence and subsequently, her employment with Meritor Bank was extinguished.
In the District Court Vinson brought suit against Meritor Bank and Sidney Taylor; Taylor denied Vinson’s allegations of sexual activity that he never fondled her, never made suggestive remarks to her, never engaged in sexual intercourse with her, and never asked her to do so. He contended instead that respondent made her accusations in response to a business-related dispute. Furthermore, the bank also denied Vinson’s allegations and stated that any sexual harassment by Taylor was unknown to the bank and engaged in without its consent or approval.
The District Court denied relief without resolving the conflicting testimony, holding that if respondent and the supervisor did have a sexual relationship, it was voluntary and had nothing to do with her continued employment at the bank, and that therefore respondent was not the victim of sexual harassment. The court then went on to hold that since the bank was without notice, it could not be held liable for the supervisor’s alleged sexual harassment.
Vinson appealed, and The District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and remanded. Noting that a violation of Title VII may be predicated on either of two types of sexual harassment – (1) harassment that involves the conditioning of employment benefits on sexual favors, and (2) harassment that, while not affecting economic benefits, creates a hostile or offensive working environment. The Court of Appeals decided in favor of Vinson since the grievance here was of the second type and the District Court did not consider whether a violation of this type had occurred. As to the bank’s liability, the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals held that an employer is absolutely liable for sexual harassment by supervisory personnel, whether or not the employer knew or should have known about it. It held the employer Meritor Bank vicariously liable for the supervisor’s environmental harassment, even though the employer did not have specific notice of the harassment
Contentions of the Parties:
Meritor Bank: The bank supervisor Taylor did not sexually discriminate against Vinson by sexual harassment and the bank is not liable as they were never notified of the accusations. Any sexual interactions between Vinson and Taylor were voluntary.
The respondent further contends that in Title VII prohibiting discrimination with respect to compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, Congress was concerned with what petitioner describes as “tangible loss” of “an economic character,” not “purely psychological aspects of the workplace environment.” In support of this claim petitioner observes that in both the legislative history of Title VII and this Court’s Title VII decisions, the focus has been on tangible, economic barriers erected by discrimination.
Vinson: Sidney Taylor her supervisor while employed at the bank, subjected her to sexual harassment that was unwelcome in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, creating a hostile and discriminating work environment while employed at Meritor Bank who is also liable for supervisory actions of discrimination.
Issue: Did Taylor’s behavior as a Meritor Bank Supervisor constitute sexual harassment according to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964? If so found, was the bank liable for his environmental harassment?
Decision: Yes, the Supreme Court affirmed the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia’s decision that Taylor did sexually harass Vinson causing a hostile work environment which is a type of sexual discrimination actionable under Title VII. SCOTUS did not address Meritor Bank liability.
Reasoning: The District Court erroneously focused on the “voluntariness” of respondent’s participation in the claimed sexual episodes. The correct inquiry is whether respondent by her conduct indicated that the alleged sexual advances were unwelcome, not whether her participation in them was voluntary.
Meritor Bank’s claim that compensatory or tangible loss must be present for sexual discrimination is faulty; a hostile environment is present if the unwelcome conduct is sufficiently severe or pervasive, an abusive work environment supports an actionable claim under the Title VII standards: frequency, severity, physically threatening or humiliating, and unreasonable interference with work. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Guidelines fully support the view that sexual harassment leading to non-economic injury can violate Title VII. Here, Vinson’s allegations were sufficient to state a claim for “hostile environment” sexual harassment.
Rule of Law: A claim of “hostile environment” sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that is actionable under Title VII.
(Scotus discussion on employer liability) The Supreme Court in Meritor declined to issue a definitive rule on employer liability for cases in which a supervisor creates a sexually offensive work environment. The Court nevertheless discussed at length the EEOC’s new position and concluded that “the Court of Appeals was wrong to entirely disregard agency principles and impose absolute liability on employers for the acts of their supervisors, regardless of the circumstances of a particular case.” The Court, however, did not definitively endorse a knowledge standard. Further, it rejected automatic immunity for an employer when a grievance procedure existed but was not used by the plaintiff.
The Court of Appeals erred in concluding that employers are always automatically liable for sexual harassment by their supervisors. While common-law agency principles may not be transferable in all their particulars to Title VII, Congress’ decision to define “employer” to include any “agent” of an employer evinces an intent to place some limits on the acts of employees for which employers under Title VII are to be held responsible. In this case, however, the mere existence of a grievance procedure in the bank and the bank’s policy against discrimination, coupled with respondent’s failure to invoke that procedure, do not necessarily insulate the bank from liability.