Meritor Savings Bank, Fsb v. Vinson 477 U.S. 57 (1986)

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inMeritor the Supreme Court unanimously held that sexual harassment that created a "hostile environment" in the workplace constituted employment discrimination in violation of Title VII of the civil rights act of 1964. The Court thus gave its blessing to an interpretation that was already well established in the guidelines of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and in the lower federal courts.

A woman who had been employed by a bank for four years sued her branch manager and the bank for injunctive relief and for both compensatory and punitive damages, alleging that the manager had demanded and obtained sexual favors from her, including some incidents of forcible rape. She stated that she had not reported these facts to the manager's superiors because she was afraid of her manager. The manager disputed these allegations, and the bank contended that it neither knew nor approved of any sexual harassment by the manager. The bank further argued that the prohibitions of Title VII were limited to discrimination causing economic or tangible loss, not psychological harm.

justice william h. rehnquist, writing for the Court, rejected the latter argument. Title VII was intended to strike at all disparate treatment of men and women. The EEOC guidelines were also persuasive authority that Title VII is concerned with noneconomic injury. The guidelines had explicitly recognized sexual harassment that creates "an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment" to be a form of sex discrimination that violates the act, and lower courts had arrived at a similar interpretation in cases involving both racial harassment and sexual harassment.

Even if the plaintiff's sexual relationship with the manager were "voluntary," the Court said, that is not a defense to a Title VII action; rather, the question is whether the manager's sexual advances were "unwelcome," a determination to be made on the totality of the circumstances shown in the record. The Court declined to rule in the abstract on the question of the bank's liability for the actions of its manager. It followed the EEOC's brief, agreeing that an employer is absolutely liable when a supervisory employee offers economic benefits for sexual favors, but refusing to extend the rule of absolute liability to a "hostile environment" case. The Court also rejected the bank's argument that the mere existence of a grievance procedure insulated it from liability. The issue of the employer's liability, the Court suggested, should first be addressed by the lower courts in the context of specific findings of fact.

justice thurgood marshall, writing for four Justices, concurred separately to address the question of employer liability. He would follow the EEOC guidelines on this point. These guidelines went beyond the EEOC's own brief to the Court, making an employer generally responsible for supervisory employees' sexual harassment whether or not that conduct was authorized or forbidden and whether or not the employer knew or should have known of the conduct.

Kenneth L. Karst


Abrams, Kathryn 1989 Gender Discrimination and the Transformation of Workplace Norms. Vanderbilt Law Review 42: 1183–1248.

Mac Kinnon, Catharine A. 1979 Sexual Harassment of Working Women. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

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Meritor Savings Bank, Fsb v. Vinson 477 U.S. 57 (1986)

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