The Rehnquist Court (1986–2005)


How did the Rehnquist Court rule in the area of sexual harassment in employment?

In its 1993 decision Harris v. Forklift Systems, Inc., the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that a sexual harassment plaintiff did not have to show evidence of a severe psychological injury in order to recover for sexual harassment. The plaintiff has to show evidence of severe and pervasive harassment that unreasonably interfere with the plaintiff’s workplace environment.

In its 1998 decisions Burlington Industries, Inc. v. Ellerth and Faragher v. City of Boca Raton, the Court clarified when an employee can recover against an employer for sexual harassment. In the case of harassment by a supervisor, the Court said that it depends on whether the employee suffers a tangible employment action (such as a discharge or demotion). If an employee is harassed by a supervisor and suffers a tangible employment action, then the employer is strictly liable. If an employee suffers harassment from a supervisor but does not suffer the loss of any tangible benefits in the workplace, then the employer can present an affirmative defense. This affirmative defense consists of two elements: “(a) that the employer exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct promptly any sexually harassing behavior, and (b) that the plaintiff employee unreasonably failed to take advantage of any preventive or corrective opportunities provided by the employer or to avoid harm otherwise.”

In the same year, the Court also ruled in Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, Inc., the Court ruled that Title VII does cover same-sex sexual harassment. The Oncale case involved a male employee who alleged that other male employees sexually harassed him.


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