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1.6 A Sample Case

Preliminary Note to Students

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is a federal statute that applies to all employers whose workforce exceeds fifteen people. The text of Title VII says that

(a) it shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer—

(1) to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or natural origin.

At common law—where judges decide cases without reference to statutory guidance—employers were generally free to hire and fire on any basis they might choose, and employees were generally free to work for an employer or quit an employer on any basis they might choose (unless the employer and the employee had a contract). This rule has been called “employment at will.” State and federal statutes that prohibit discrimination on any basis (such as the prohibitions on discrimination because of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin in Title VII) are essentially legislative exceptions to the common-law employment-at-will rule.

In the 1970s, many female employees began to claim a certain kind of sex discrimination: sexual harassment. Some women were being asked to give sexual favors in exchange for continued employment or promotion (quid pro quo sexual harassment) or found themselves in a working environment that put their chances for continued employment or promotion at risk. This form of sexual discrimination came to be called “hostile working environment” sexual harassment.

Notice that the statute itself says nothing about sexual harassment but speaks only in broad terms about discrimination “because of” sex (and four other factors). Having set the broad policy, Congress left it to employees, employers, and the courts to fashion more specific rules through the process of civil litigation.

This is a case from our federal court system, which has a trial or hearing in the federal district court, an appeal to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, and a final appeal to the US Supreme Court. Teresa Harris, having lost at both the district court and the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, here has petitioned for a writ of certiorari (asking the court to issue an order to bring the case to the Supreme Court), a petition that is granted less than one out of every fifty times. The Supreme Court, in other words, chooses its cases carefully. Here, the court wanted to resolve a difference of opinion among the various circuit courts of appeal as to whether or not a plaintiff in a hostile-working-environment claim could recover damages without showing “severe psychological injury.”

Harris v. Forklift Systems

510 U.S. 17 (U.S. Supreme Court 1992)

JUDGES: O’CONNOR, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court. SCALIA, J., and GINSBURG, J., filed concurring opinions.

JUSTICE O’CONNOR delivered the opinion of the Court.

In this case we consider the definition of a discriminatorily “abusive work environment” (also known as a “hostile work environment”) under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 78 Stat. 253, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. (1988 ed., Supp. III).

I

Teresa Harris worked as a manager at Forklift Systems, Inc., an equipment rental company, from April 1985 until October 1987. Charles Hardy was Forklift’s president.

The Magistrate found that, throughout Harris’ time at Forklift, Hardy often insulted her because of her gender and often made her the target of unwanted sexual innuendoes. Hardy told Harris on several occasions, in the presence of other employees, “You’re a woman, what do you know” and “We need a man as the rental manager”; at least once, he told her she was “a dumbass woman.” Again in front of others, he suggested that the two of them “go to the Holiday Inn to negotiate [Harris’s] raise.” Hardy occasionally asked Harris and other female employees to get coins from his front pants pocket. He threw objects on the ground in front of Harris and other women, and asked them to pick the objects up. He made sexual innuendoes about Harris’ and other women’s clothing.

In mid-August 1987, Harris complained to Hardy about his conduct. Hardy said he was surprised that Harris was offended, claimed he was only joking, and apologized. He also promised he would stop, and based on this assurance Harris stayed on the job. But in early September, Hardy began anew: While Harris was arranging a deal with one of Forklift’s customers, he asked her, again in front of other employees, “What did you do, promise the guy…some [sex] Saturday night?” On October 1, Harris collected her paycheck and quit.

Harris then sued Forklift, claiming that Hardy’s conduct had created an abusive work environment for her because of her gender. The United States District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee, adopting the report and recommendation of the Magistrate, found this to be “a close case,” but held that Hardy’s conduct did not create an abusive environment. The court found that some of Hardy’s comments “offended [Harris], and would offend the reasonable woman,” but that they were not “so severe as to be expected to seriously affect [Harris’s] psychological well-being. A reasonable woman manager under like circumstances would have been offended by Hardy, but his conduct would not have risen to the level of interfering with that person’s work performance.

“Neither do I believe that [Harris] was subjectively so offended that she suffered injury.…Although Hardy may at times have genuinely offended [Harris], I do not believe that he created a working environment so poisoned as to be intimidating or abusive to [Harris].”

In focusing on the employee’s psychological well-being, the District Court was following Circuit precedent. See Rabidue v. Osceola Refining Co., 805 F.2d 611, 620 (CA6 1986), cert. denied, 481 U.S. 1041, 95 L. Ed. 2d 823, 107 S. Ct. 1983 (1987). The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed in a brief unpublished decision…reported at 976 F.2d 733 (1992).

We granted certiorari, 507 U.S. 959 (1993), to resolve a conflict among the Circuits on whether conduct, to be actionable as “abusive work environment” harassment (no quid pro quo harassment issue is present here), must “seriously affect [an employee’s] psychological well-being” or lead the plaintiff to “suffer injury.” Compare Rabidue (requiring serious effect on psychological well-being); Vance v. Southern Bell Telephone & Telegraph Co., 863 F.2d 1503, 1510 (CA11 1989) (same); and Downes v. FAA, 775 F.2d 288, 292 (CA Fed. 1985) (same), with Ellison v. Brady, 924 F.2d 872, 877–878 (CA9 1991) (rejecting such a requirement).

II

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes it “an unlawful employment practice for an employer…to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1). As we made clear in Meritor Savings Bank, FSB v. Vinson, 477 U.S. 57 (1986), this language “is not limited to ‘economic’ or ‘tangible’ discrimination. The phrase ‘terms, conditions, or privileges of employment’ evinces a congressional intent ‘to strike at the entire spectrum of disparate treatment of men and women’ in employment,” which includes requiring people to work in a discriminatorily hostile or abusive environment. Id., at 64, quoting Los Angeles Dept. of Water and Power v. Manhart, 435 U.S. 702, 707, n.13, 55 L. Ed. 2d 657, 98 S. Ct. 1370 (1978). When the workplace is permeated with “discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult,” 477 U.S. at 65, that is “sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim’s employment and create an abusive working environment,” Title VII is violated.

This standard, which we reaffirm today, takes a middle path between making actionable any conduct that is merely offensive and requiring the conduct to cause a tangible psychological injury. As we pointed out in Meritor, “mere utterance of an…epithet which engenders offensive feelings in an employee,” does not sufficiently affect the conditions of employment to implicate Title VII. Conduct that is not severe or pervasive enough to create an objectively hostile or abusive work environment—an environment that a reasonable person would find hostile or abusive—is beyond Title VII’s purview. Likewise, if the victim does not subjectively perceive the environment to be abusive, the conduct has not actually altered the conditions of the victim’s employment, and there is no Title VII violation.

But Title VII comes into play before the harassing conduct leads to a nervous breakdown. A discriminatorily abusive work environment, even one that does not seriously affect employees’ psychological well-being, can and often will detract from employees’ job performance, discourage employees from remaining on the job, or keep them from advancing in their careers. Moreover, even without regard to these tangible effects, the very fact that the discriminatory conduct was so severe or pervasive that it created a work environment abusive to employees because of their race, gender, religion, or national origin offends Title VII’s broad rule of workplace equality. The appalling conduct alleged in Meritor, and the reference in that case to environments “‘so heavily polluted with discrimination as to destroy completely the emotional and psychological stability of minority group workers,’” Id., at 66, quoting Rogers v. EEOC, 454 F.2d 234, 238 (CA5 1971), cert. denied, 406 U.S. 957,32 L. Ed. 2d 343, 92 S. Ct. 2058 (1972), merely present some especially egregious examples of harassment. They do not mark the boundary of what is actionable.

We therefore believe the District Court erred in relying on whether the conduct “seriously affected plaintiff’s psychological well-being” or led her to “suffer injury.” Such an inquiry may needlessly focus the fact finder’s attention on concrete psychological harm, an element Title VII does not require. Certainly Title VII bars conduct that would seriously affect a reasonable person’s psychological well-being, but the statute is not limited to such conduct. So long as the environment would reasonably be perceived, and is perceived, as hostile or abusive, Meritor, supra, at 67, there is no need for it also to be psychologically injurious.

This is not, and by its nature cannot be, a mathematically precise test. We need not answer today all the potential questions it raises, nor specifically address the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s new regulations on this subject, see 58 Fed. Reg. 51266 (1993) (proposed 29 CFR §§ 1609.1, 1609.2); see also 29 CFR § 1604.11 (1993). But we can say that whether an environment is “hostile” or “abusive” can be determined only by looking at all the circumstances. These may include the frequency of the discriminatory conduct; its severity; whether it is physically threatening or humiliating, or a mere offensive utterance; and whether it unreasonably interferes with an employee’s work performance. The effect on the employee’s psychological well-being is, of course, relevant to determining whether the plaintiff actually found the environment abusive. But while psychological harm, like any other relevant factor, may be taken into account, no single factor is required.

III

Forklift, while conceding that a requirement that the conduct seriously affect psychological well-being is unfounded, argues that the District Court nonetheless correctly applied the Meritor standard. We disagree. Though the District Court did conclude that the work environment was not “intimidating or abusive to [Harris],” it did so only after finding that the conduct was not “so severe as to be expected to seriously affect plaintiff’s psychological well-being,” and that Harris was not “subjectively so offended that she suffered injury,” ibid. The District Court’s application of these incorrect standards may well have influenced its ultimate conclusion, especially given that the court found this to be a “close case.”

We therefore reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals, and remand the case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

So ordered.

Note to Students

This was only the second time that the Supreme Court had decided a sexual harassment case. Many feminist legal studies scholars feared that the court would raise the bar and make hostile-working-environment claims under Title VII more difficult to win. That did not happen. When the question to be decided is combined with the court’s decision, we get the holding of the case. Here, the question that the court poses, plus its answer, yields a holding that “An employee need not prove severe psychological injury in order to win a Title VII sexual harassment claim.” This holding will be true until such time as the court revisits a similar question and answers it differently. This does happen, but happens rarely.

Case Questions

  1. Is this a criminal case or a civil-law case? How can you tell?
  2. Is the court concerned with making a procedural rule here, or is the court making a statement about the substantive law?
  3. Is this a case where the court is interpreting the Constitution, a federal statute, a state statute, or the common law?
  4. In Harris v. Forklift, what if the trial judge does not personally agree that women should have any rights to equal treatment in the workplace? Why shouldn’t that judge dismiss the case even before trial? Or should the judge dismiss the case after giving the female plaintiff her day in court?
  5. What was the employer’s argument in this case? Do you agree or disagree with it? What if those who legislated Title VII gave no thought to the question of seriousness of injury at all?