Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services Incorporated et al. 1998

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Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services Incorporated et al. 1998

Petitioner: Joseph Oncale

Respondent: Sundowner Onshore Services Incorporated, John Lyons, Danny Pippen, and Brandon Johnson

Petitioner's Claim: That on-the-job sexual harassment by coworkers of the same sex is still sexual discrimination.

Chief Lawyers for Petitioner: Nicholas Canaday III

Chief Lawyers for Respondent: Harry M. Reasoner

Justices for the Court: Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Anthony M. Kennedy, Sandra Day O'Connor, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia, David H. Souter, John Paul Stevens, Clarence Thomas

Justices Dissenting: None

Date of Decision: March 4, 1998

Decision: Ruled in favor of Oncale by finding that one person harassing another person of the same sex is sex discrimination prohibited by federal law.

Significance: The ruling recognized the right of individuals to claim sexual harassment even when the threatening individual and the victim are of the same sex. The Court found that Title VII applies to all sexual harassment situations which affect a person's employment.

Sex discrimination involves the selection of one person over another for a job or for promotion purely on the basis of their gender (sex). Discrimination against women in the workplace had a long history in the United States. Women were routinely paid less than male workers doing the same work, not considered for management positions, and barred from certain professions, such as lawyers and even serving on juries. To correct this longstanding bias against women, Congress passed Section VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that prohibited sex discrimination in employment. Title VII made it "an unlawful employment practice for an employer . . . to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation [pay], terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin." Discrimination against men by women was hardly considered an issue, not to mention sex discrimination between two women or two men. In fact, not until 1973 in Frontiero v. Richardson did the Court even recognize that men could be victims of sex discrimination.

A new kind of gender issue grew in the 1980s called sexual harassment. Sexual harassment usually meant that a person at work was demanding sex from another person in an harassing way. Often a supervisor would be demanding sexual favors in exchange for some favorable employment action, such as a promotion or even keeping a job. Less clearly sexual harassment could occur simply through constant workplace threats, insults, or ridicule, creating what is known as a "hostile work environment." In Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson (1986) the Supreme Court ruled for the first time that these types of sexual harassment were a form of legally prohibited sex discrimination. Sexual harassment was a federal offense covered by the Civil Rights Act.

Before long cases of alleged sexual harassment between individuals of the same sex began to make it to the courts. The resulting court rulings were very inconsistent. Often the courts stated that same-sex sexual harassment would have to include some form of demands for sex, such as between a homosexual employer and an employee of the same sex. A district court decision in Garcia v. Elf Atochem (1994) ruled that there could be no same-sex sexual harassment. Another district court in Baskerville v. Culligan International Co. (1995) disagreed, ruling that same-sex claims could be covered by Title VII. And a third in 1996 ruled that same-sex harassment could not be responsible for a hostile work environment. The Supreme Court had yet to be clearly heard on the subject.

The Plight of Joseph Oncale

In August of 1991 twenty-one-year-old Joseph Oncale was hired by Sundowner Offshore Services in Houma, Louisiana to be a roustabout. Roustabouts are unskilled laborers working in an oilfield. Oncale was part of an eight-man crew working on a Chevron USA oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico. The crew included John Lyons, Danny Pippen, and Brandon Johnson. Pippen and Lyons were supervisors over Oncale. After a few weeks of work, Oncale began to be the target of a series of threatening and humiliating actions by Lyons, Pippen, and Johnson, often in front of co-workers. In one instance, while on a small boat going from one oil platform to another, the three men physically assailed him in a sexual manner. The assaults continued with threats of rape over the next several weeks.

Desperate, Oncale complained to company officials. However, when the officials approached the workers about the complaints they denied Oncale's charges. The company, claiming only horseplay had taken place, took no action, not even an investigation. Oncale, fearing what would eventually happen to him, quit in November, only four months after being hired.

Oncale Goes to Court

After leaving, Oncale filed a sex discrimination lawsuit with the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, Louisiana. The suit sought payment for damages from Sundowner and the three men who had threatened and accosted him. He had lost his job because of the embarrassing behavior of the co-workers and lack of response by the company to his pleas.

Based on the recent Garcia decision, the district court dismissed the case claiming that no federal laws recognized same-sex sexual discrimination. Oncale appealed the decision, but the appeals court promptly agreed with the first opinion. Upon the appeals court decision, the U.S. Department of Justice decided to help Oncale take his case to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear it.

The Supreme Court

Before the Supreme Court, Oncale's and the government's lawyers argued that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act was written simply in sex-neutral terms. It did not mention harassment only in terms of men harassing women. Sex discrimination is prohibited regardless of the gender of the people involved. On the other hand, Sundowner argued that same-sex harassment was not even in the minds of legislators when the act was passed. According to Sundowner, the law was clearly intended to protect females. Applying it to a case like Oncale's, they argued, would be a great misuse of the law, making it more of a code for decent behavior rather than a discrimination law. Rowdy behavior would be confused with sexual harassment.

In an unanimous (all nine justices agreeing) decision, the Court ruled in favor of Oncale thus reversing the two lower court decisions. Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the Court, presented a forceful response. Though he noted that no doubt same-sex harassment was not the primary problem Congress had in mind when writing the law, he emphasized that the harm from same-sex harassment was no less serious than if the two people were of different sexes. Therefore, any form of sexual harassment in the workplace directly affecting a person's employment clearly violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. As Scalia noted, the law was intended "to strike at the entire spectrum [variation] of disparate [unequal] treatment of men and women in employment." The law is violated when "discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult" becomes so overwhelming that an abusive work environment is created.

Scalia further noted that "harassing conduct need not be motivated by sexual desire to support an inference [idea] of discrimination on the basis of sex." In conclusion, Scalia wrote that routine interaction between employees should not be affected by the Court's ruling. Only behavior "so . . . offensive as to alter 'conditions' of the victim's employment" would be prohibited. Determining when sexual harassment had indeed occurred would be tricky. The situation in which the actions occur is all-important in deciding if harassment in fact occurred. As Scalia noted, a pat on the rear of a football player by his coach on the field is quite different than the same action toward the coach's secretary in the office. The "surrounding circumstances, expectations, and relationships" would have to be closely examined for each case using common sense.

By the time of the Supreme Court decision, Oncale was twenty-seven years old, married, and had two children. The Court returned his case to the district court so that he might have a trial to try to prove that the actions by his co-workers constituted sexual harassment in the workplace.

The Oncale decision finally made clear the legal status of same-sex sexual harassment. Two other Supreme Court decisions in 1998 further broadened employers' legal responsibilities for protecting their workers


I n a series of rulings in the 1990s including Oncale, the Supreme Court clarified and broadened employer responsibilities. Faced with potentially expensive lawsuits and costly damage payments to victims of on-the-job sexual harassment by the employers, both public agencies and private businesses began educating their employees on how to avoid sexual harassment situations. It also became apparent that quick resolution of disputes was needed. Training materials described what sexual harassment is, what rights employees have to correct an unwanted situation, and penalties employees faced for violating the rules.

The bigger organizations also adopted in-house procedures for resolving sexual harassment claims before they could reach the courts. The usual goal is to resolve the dispute as quickly and informally as possible to save money, time, and workplace disruptions. These procedures commonly involve the harassed employee contacting a counselor designated by the company, a person to whom an employee could file a complaint, different from the employee's supervisor, within a certain time period after the incident, often within 45 days. The counselor normally (1) advises the employee of their rights, (2) helps define the dispute, (3) offers a solution, usually within a required time span such as 30 days, and (4) takes the dispute resolution to managers for acceptance. The counselors also keep company managers aware of troublesome patterns related to discrimination or harassment so as to avoid disputes. If this informal process fails, the employee can then proceed with a formal complaint possibly leading to more formal investigations by the company or outside parties. Courts have normally recognized these kinds of informal resolution processes and will not accept cases if the alleged victim has not followed company policies in making complaints.

from on-the-job sexual harassment. For instance, hostile actions based on the sex of the victim could justify sexual harassment claims, even without involvement of sexual desire. If sex or gender was not a key factor in the incidents, then the hostile actions would not be considered sexual harassment and would not necessarily violate federal law. The actions would be considered assault under state laws. Employers in the late 1990s began more diligently developing company policies and guidelines for their employees, giving training, providing handbooks to each employee, and informing employees of their rights.

Suggestions for further reading

Baridon, Andrea P., and David R. Eyler. Working Together: New Rules and Realities for Managing Men and Women at Work. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1994.

Eskenazi, Martin, and David Gallen. Sexual Harassment: Know Your Rights. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc., 1992.

Petrocelli, William, and Barbara Kate Repa. Sexual Harassment on the Job. Berkeley, CA: Nolo Press, 1994.

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