Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson: Sexual Harassment is Unlawful Discrimination

In Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, 477 U.S. 57 (1986), the Supreme Court recognized for the first time that sexual harassment is a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.. 

As discussed in an earlier post, Title VII protects employees from workplace discrimination “because of” sex. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a).

Meritor Savings Bank addressed the question of whether Title VII prohibits employers from creating a sexually “hostile environment” or only prohibited tangible economic discrimination, like terminations and demotions.

The Court held, inter alia, that “hostile environment” sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that is actionable under Title VII. Id. at 63-69. This is because the language of Title VII is not limited to “economic” or “tangible” discrimination, like a termination resulting in wage loss. Therefore, sexual harassment leading to purely non-economic injury (like emotional distress) can violate Title VII. 

Facts

In 1974, Meritor Savings Bank hired Vinson as a teller. Her supervisor was a man named Sidney Taylor. Vinson testified that Taylor subsequently invited her out to dinner and, during the course of the meal, suggested that they go to a motel to have sex. At first, she refused, but out of what she described as fear of losing her job she eventually agreed. According to Vinson, Taylor thereafter repeatedly demanded sexual favors from her, usually at the branch, both during and after business hours. She estimated that over the next several years she had intercourse with him some 40 or 50 times. In addition, Vinson testified that Taylor fondled her in front of other employees, followed her into the women’s restroom when she went there alone, exposed himself to her, and forcibly raped her on several occasions. Taylor denied all this. The District Court found that any sexual relationship between Vinson and Taylor was a voluntary one. 

In her suit against Taylor and the bank, Vinsom claimed that during her four years at the bank she had constantly been subjected to “sexual harassment” by Taylor in violation of Title VII. She sought injunctive relief, compensatory and punitive damages against Taylor and the bank, and attorney’s fees.

The Court’s Decision

Meritor Savings Bank raised the question of whether Title VII’s prohibition on sex-based “discrimination” prohibits employers from creating a sexually “hostile environment” or was limited to a prohibition on tangible economic discrimination, like terminations and demotions.

The Court held that “hostile environment” sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that is actionable under Title VII. Id. at 63-69. This is because the language of Title VII is not limited to “economic” or “tangible” discrimination, like a termination resulting in wage loss. Therefore, consistent with EEOC’s interpretation of Title VII, sexual harassment leading to purely non-economic injury (like emotional distress) can violate Title VII.

In so holding, the Court emphasized the purpose of Title VII: “Title VII affords employees the right to work in an environment free from discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult whether based on sex, race, religion, or national origin. 477 U.S. at 65. Citing the EEOC’s guidelines on sex discrimination, the Court held that an employee may establish a violation of Title VII “by proving that discrimination based on sex has created a hostile or abusive work environment.” Id

The Court quoted the Eleventh Circuit’s decision in Henson v. City of Dundee, 682 F.2d 897, 902 (11th Cir. 1982), which compared sex-based harassment to racial harassment:

Sexual harassment which creates a hostile or offensive environment for members of one sex is every bit the arbitrary barrier to sexual equality at the workplace that racial harassment is to racial equality. Surely, a requirement that a man or woman run a gauntlet of sexual abuse in return for the privilege of being allowed to work and made a living can be as demeaning and disconcerting as the harshest of racial epithets.

477 U.S. at 67. The Court went on to hold that for harassment to violate Title VII, it must be “sufficiently severe or pervasive ‘to alter the conditions of [the victim’s] employment and create an abusive working environment.'” Id. (quoting Henson at 904).

The Court further held that “voluntariness” in the sense that an employee was not forced to participate in sexual conduct against her will, is no defense to a sexual harassment claim. The District Court had therefore erroneously focused on the “voluntariness” of Vinson’s participation in the claimed sexual episodes. In a sexual harassment case, the correct inquiry is whether the employee by her conduct indicated that the alleged sexual advances were unwelcome, not whether her participation in them was voluntary. 477 U.S. at 67-68. The Court further held that while evidence of an employee’s sexually provocative speech or dress may be relevant in determining whether she found particular advances unwelcome, such evidence should be admitted with caution in light of the potential for unfair prejudice. Id. at 69.

Analysis

Meritor Savings Bank marked the first time the Supreme Court recognized a cause of action for sexual harassment. The decision also clarified that sexual harassment creating a hostile work environment constitutes unlawful sex discrimination under Title VI. The case is also notable for questioning whether sexual conduct between a supervisor and a subordinate could truly be voluntary due to the power dynamics and hierarchical relationship between supervisors and subordinates.

Here’s a link to a contemporaneous 1986 New York Times article about the case and its significance.

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