477 U.S. 57 (1986), 84-1979, Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson

Docket Nº:No. 84-1979
Citation:477 U.S. 57, 106 S.Ct. 2399, 91 L.Ed.2d 49, 54 U.S.L.W. 4703
Party Name:Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson
Case Date:June 19, 1986
Court:United States Supreme Court

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477 U.S. 57 (1986)

106 S.Ct. 2399, 91 L.Ed.2d 49, 54 U.S.L.W. 4703

Meritor Savings Bank



No. 84-1979

United States Supreme Court

June 19, 1986

Argued March 25, 1986




Respondent former employee of petitioner bank brought an action against the bank and her supervisor at the bank, claiming that, during her employment at the bank, she had been subjected to sexual harassment by the supervisor in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and seeking injunctive relief and damages. At the trial, the parties presented conflicting testimony about the existence of a sexual relationship between respondent and the supervisor. The District Court denied relief without resolving the conflicting testimony, holding that, if respondent and the supervisor did have a sexual relationship, it was voluntary, and had nothing to do with her continued employment at the bank, and that therefore respondent was not the victim of sexual harassment. The court then went on to hold that, since the bank was without notice, it could not be held liable for the supervisor's alleged sexual harassment. The Court of Appeals reversed and remanded. Noting that a violation of Title VII may be predicated on either of two types of sexual harassment -- (1) harassment that involves the conditioning of employment benefits on sexual favors, and (2) harassment that, while not affecting economic benefits, creates a hostile or offensive working environment -- the Court of Appeals held that, since the grievance here was of the second type, and the District [106 S.Ct. 2401] Court had not considered whether a violation of this type had occurred, a remand was necessary. The court further held that the need for a remand was not obviated by the fact that the District Court had found that any sexual relationship between respondent and the supervisor was a voluntary one, a finding that might have been based on testimony about respondent's "dress and personal fantasies" that "had no place in the litigation." As to the bank's liability, the Court of Appeals held that an employer is absolutely liable for sexual harassment by supervisory personnel, whether or not the employer knew or should have known about it.


1. A claim of "hostile environment" sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that is actionable under Title VII. Pp. 63-69.

(a) The language of Title VII is not limited to "economic" or "tangible" discrimination. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Guidelines fully support the view that sexual harassment leading to non-economic

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injury can violate Title VII. Here, respondent's allegations were sufficient to state a claim for "hostile environment" sexual harassment. Pp. 63-67.

(b) The District Court's findings were insufficient to dispose of respondent's "hostile environment" claim. The District Court apparently erroneously believed that a sexual harassment claim will not lie absent an economic effect on the complainant's employment, and erroneously focused on the "voluntariness" of respondent's participation in the claimed sexual episodes. The correct inquiry is whether respondent by her conduct indicated that the alleged sexual advances were unwelcome, not whether her participation in them was voluntary. Pp. 67-68.

(c) The District Court did not err in admitting evidence of respondent's sexually provocative speech and dress. While "voluntariness" in the sense of consent is no defense to a sexual harassment claim, it does not follow that such evidence is irrelevant as a matter of law in determining whether the complainant found particular sexual advances unwelcome. Pp. 68-69.

2. The Court of Appeals erred in concluding that employers are always automatically liable for sexual harassment by their supervisors. While common law agency principles may not be transferable in all their particulars to Title VII, Congress' decision to define "employer" to include any "agent" of an employer evinces an intent to place some limits on the acts of employees for which employers under Title VII are to be held responsible. In this case, however, the mere existence of a grievance procedure in the bank and the bank's policy against discrimination, coupled with respondent's failure to invoke that procedure, do not necessarily insulate the bank from liability. Pp. 69-73.

243 U.S.App.D.C. 323, 753 F.2d 141, affirmed and remanded.

REHNQUIST, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and WHITE, POWELL, STEVENS, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. STEVENS, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 73. MARSHALL, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which BRENNAN, BLACKMUN, and STEVENS, JJ., joined, post, p. 74.

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REHNQUIST, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case presents important questions concerning claims of workplace "sexual harassment" brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 78 Stat. 253, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq.


In 1974, respondent Mechelle Vinson met Sidney Taylor, a vice-president of what is now petitioner Meritor Savings Bank [106 S.Ct. 2402] (bank) and manager of one of its branch offices. When respondent asked whether she might obtain employment at the bank, Taylor gave her an application, which she completed and returned the next day; later that same day, Taylor called her to say that she had been hired. With Taylor as her supervisor, respondent started as a teller-trainee, and thereafter was promoted to teller, head teller, and assistant

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branch manager. She worked at the same branch for four years, and it is undisputed that her advancement there was based on merit alone. In September, 1978, respondent notified Taylor that she was taking sick leave for an indefinite period. On November 1, 1978, the bank discharged her for excessive use of that leave.

Respondent brought this action against Taylor and the bank, claiming 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.

At the 11-day bench trial, the parties presented conflicting testimony about Taylor's behavior during respondent's employment. * Respondent testified that, during her probationary period as a teller-trainee, Taylor treated her in a fatherly way and made no sexual advances. Shortly thereafter, however, he invited her out to dinner and, during the course of the meal, suggested that they go to a motel to have sexual relations. At first she refused, but out of what she described as fear of losing her job, she eventually agreed. According to respondent, Taylor thereafter made repeated demands upon her for sexual favors, 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, respondent 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 even forcibly raped her on several occasions. These activities ceased after 1977, respondent stated, when she started going with a steady boyfriend.

Respondent also testified that Taylor touched and fondled other women employees of the bank, and she attempted to

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call witnesses to support this charge. But while some supporting testimony apparently was admitted without objection, the District Court did not allow her

to present wholesale evidence of a pattern and practice relating to sexual advances to other female employees in her case in chief, but advised her that she might well be able to present such evidence in rebuttal to the defendants' cases.

Vinson v. Taylor, 22 EPD ¶ 30,708, p. 14,693, n. 1, 23 FEP Cases 37, 38-39, n. 1 (DC 1980). Respondent did not offer such evidence in rebuttal. Finally, respondent testified that, because she was afraid of Taylor, she never reported his harassment to any of his supervisors and never attempted to use the bank's complaint procedure.

Taylor denied respondent's allegations of sexual activity, testifying that he never fondled her, never made suggestive remarks to her, never engaged in sexual intercourse with her, and never asked her to do so. He contended instead that respondent made her accusations in response to a business-related dispute. The bank also denied respondent's allegations, and asserted that any sexual harassment by Taylor was unknown to the bank and engaged in without its consent or approval.

The District Court denied relief, but did not resolve the conflicting testimony about the existence of a sexual relationship between respondent and Taylor. It found instead that

[i]f [respondent] and Taylor did engage in an intimate or sexual relationship during the time of [respondent's] employment [106 S.Ct. 2403] with [the bank], that relationship was a voluntary one having nothing to do with her continued employment at [the bank] or her advancement or promotions at that institution.

Id. at 14,692, 23 FEP Cases at 42 (footnote omitted). The court ultimately found that respondent "was not the victim of sexual harassment and was not the victim of sexual discrimination" while employed at the bank. Ibid., 23 FEP Cases at 43.

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Although it concluded that respondent had not proved a violation of Title VII, the District Court nevertheless went on to address the bank's liability. After noting the bank's express policy against discrimination, and finding that neither respondent nor any other employee had...

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