510 U.S. 17 (1993), 92-1168, Harris v. Forklift Systems Inc.

Docket Nº:No. 92-1168
Citation:510 U.S. 17, 114 S.Ct. 367, 126 L.Ed.2d 295, 62 U.S.L.W. 4004
Case Date:November 09, 1993
Court:United States Supreme Court

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510 U.S. 17 (1993)

114 S.Ct. 367, 126 L.Ed.2d 295, 62 U.S.L.W. 4004




No. 92-1168

United States Supreme Court

November 9, 1993

Argued October 13, 1993



Petitioner Harris sued her former employer, respondent Forklift Systems, Inc., claiming that the conduct of Forklift's president toward her constituted "abusive work environment" harassment because of her gender in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Declaring this to be "a close case," the District Court found, among other things, that Forklift's president often insulted Harris because of her gender and often made her the target of unwanted sexual innuendos. However, the court concluded that the comments in question did not create an abusive environment because they were not "so severe as to. . .seriously affect [Harris'] psychological well-being" or lead her to "suffe[r] injury." The Court of Appeals affirmed.


To be actionable as "abusive work environment" harassment, conduct need not "seriously affect [an employee's] psychological well-being" or lead the plaintiff to "suffe[r] injury." Pp. 21-23


(a) The applicable standard, here reaffirmed, is stated in Meritor Savings Bank, FSB v. Vinson, 477 U.S. 57: Title VII is violated when the workplace is permeated with discriminatory behavior that is sufficiently severe or pervasive to create a discriminatorily hostile or abusive working environment, id., at 64, 67. This standard requires an objectively hostile or abusive environment—one that a reasonable person would find hostile or abusive—as well as the victim's subjective perception that the environment is abusive. Pp. 21-22.

(b) Whether an environment is "hostile" or "abusive" can be determined only by looking at all the circumstances, which 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 relevant in 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. Pp. 22-23.

(c) Reversal and remand are required because the District Court's erroneous application of the incorrect legal standard may well have influenced its ultimate conclusion that the work environment was not intimidating

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or abusive to Harris, especially given that the court found this to be a "close case." P. 23.

976 F.2d 733, reversed and remanded.

O'Connor, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court. Scalia, J., post, p. 24, and Ginsburg, J., post, p. 25, filed concurring opinions.

Irwin Venick argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the briefs were Robert Belton and Rebecca L. Brown.

Jeffrey P. Minear argued the cause for the United States et al. as amici curiae in support of petitioner. With him on the brief were Acting Solicitor General Bryson, Acting Assistant Attorney General Turner, Dennis J. Dimsey, Thomas E. Chandler, Donald R. Livingston, Gwendolyn Young Reams, and Carolyn L. Wheeler.

Stanley M. Chernau argued the cause for respondent. With him on the brief were Paul F. Mickey, Jr., Michael A. Carvin, and W. Eric Pilsk. [*]

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

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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).


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 innuendos. 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 dumb ass woman." App. to Pet. for Cert. A-13. Again in front of others, he suggested that the two of them "go to the Holiday Inn to negotiate [Harris'] raise." Id., at A-14. Hardy occasionally asked Harris and other female employees to get coins from his front pants pocket. Ibid. He threw objects on the ground in front of Harris and other women, and asked them to pick the objects up. Id., at A-14 to A-15. He made sexual innuendos about Harris' and other women's clothing. Id., at A-15.

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. Id., at A-16. He also promised he would stop, and based on this assurance Harris stayed on the job. Ibid. 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?" Id., at A-17. 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

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of the Magistrate, found this to be "a close case," id., at A-31, 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," id., at A-33, but that they were not

"so severe as to be expected to seriously affect [Harris'] 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]." Id., at A-34 to A-35.

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 (1987). The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed in a brief unpublished decision. Judgt. order 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 "suffe[r] 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).

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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...

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