753 F.2d 141 (D.C. Cir. 1985), 80-2369, Vinson v. Taylor

Docket Nº:80-2369.
Citation:753 F.2d 141
Party Name:Mechele VINSON, Appellant v. Sidney L. TAYLOR, et al.
Case Date:January 25, 1985
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit
 
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753 F.2d 141 (D.C. Cir. 1985)

Mechele VINSON, Appellant

v.

Sidney L. TAYLOR, et al.

No. 80-2369.

United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit

January 25, 1985

Argued Feb. 16, 1982.

Rehearing En Banc Denied May 14, 1985.[*]

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Patricia J. Barry, Avila Beach, Cal., for appellant.

Ronald A. Schechter for amici curiae, Equal Rights Advocates, Inc., et al., urging reversal.

Fred Robert Troll, Jr., Hyattsville, Md., for appellee Capital City Federal Sav. and Loan Ass'n of Washington, D.C.

Before ROBINSON, Chief Judge, WRIGHT, Circuit Judge, and NORTHROP, [*] Senior District Judge.

Opinion for the Court filed by Chief Judge ROBINSON.

SPOTTSWOOD W. ROBINSON, III, Chief Judge:

This appeal presents principally the question whether a corporate employer is accountable under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 1 as amended by the Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972, 2 for its supervisor's sexual harassment of a woman employee notwithstanding the employer's lack of actual knowledge thereof. The District Court answered in the negative. 3 We conclude that this holding is inconsistent with the intent of Title VII, and accordingly reverse.

I

We launch our review with a summary of the pertinent facts, as they were accepted by the District Court. In 1974, appellant

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Mechelle Vinson met appellee Sidney L. Taylor, who was a vice president of appellee Capital City Federal Savings and Loan Association and the manager of its Northeast Branch. 4 At Vinson's request, Taylor gave her an application for employment which she completed and returned, and promptly thereafter she was hired by Capital City. 5 With Taylor as her supervisor, 6 Vinson began her employment as a teller-trainee, and thereafter was promoted successively to teller, head teller, and finally to assistant branch manager. 7 It is undisputed, and the District Court expressly found, that Vinson's advancement was achieved on merit alone. 8 Vinson worked at the Northeast Branch for four years, when she took indefinite sick leave, 9 and was discharged two months later for excessive use of that leave. 10

Vinson brought an action under Title VII against Taylor and Capital City, 11 alleging that she had been victimized by sex discrimination in the form of sexual harassment by Taylor. 12 At trial, the evidence bearing on Taylor's behavior during Vinson's employment was conflicting. Vinson testified that Taylor asked her to have sexual relations with him, claiming that she "owed him" because he had obtained the job for her; that after initially declining his invitation she ultimately yielded, but only because she was afraid that continued refusal would jeopardize her employment. 13 She further testified that thereafter she was forced to submit to sexual advances by Taylor at the Northeast Branch both during and after business hours, and that often

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Taylor assaulted or raped her. 14 In addition, she avowed, Taylor caressed her on the job, followed her into the ladies' room when she was there alone, and at times exposed himself to her. 15 Vinson added that Taylor also fondled other women employees, 16 and she attempted to call witnesses to support this charge, but the District Court would 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." 17

Taylor denied Vinson's accusations of sexual activity and contended that Vinson aired them in retaliation for a business-related dispute. 18 Capital City also controverted Vinson's story, and asserted that any sexual harassment by Taylor was unknown to and unauthorized by it. 19 The District Court rendered judgment for Taylor and Capital City 20 on the grounds that Vinson had not been subjected to sexual harassment or discrimination, 21 and that in any event Capital City would not be accountable. 22 Our interpretation of Title VII leads us to disagree.

II

We first address the District Court's holding that Vinson did not make out a case of sex discrimination, even against Taylor. Given due deference to the court's findings of fact, 23 we believe that in critical respects they fatally undermine the legal conclusion that Vinson did not suffer a violation of Title VII.

The District Court found that Vinson "was not required to grant Taylor or any other member of Capital sexual favors as a condition of either her employment or in order to obtain promotion." 24 That finding would have significance had Vinson been confined to a theory of discrimination based upon an imposition of sex-oriented conditions to her employment status. An infringement of Title VII is not, however, necessarily dependent upon the victim's loss of employment or promotion. 25

Depending upon the particular facts, at least two separate avenues may be open to a Title VII plaintiff for a demonstration of unlawful sex discrimination. The first was recognized in Barnes v. Costle, 26 where we held that abolition of the job of a female

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employee because she spurned her male superior's sexual advances was an infringement of Title VII. 27 The second approach is illustrated by Bundy v. Jackson, 28 decided after the District Court's judgment herein, where we sustained a Title VII cause of action in favor of a woman employee seeking relief simply for pervasive on-the-job sexual harassment by her superiors. 29

Vinson's grievance was clearly of the latter type 30 and, accordingly, her case counseled an inquiry as to whether Taylor "created or condoned a substantially discriminatory work environment, regardless of whether the complaining employees lost any tangible job benefits as a result of the discrimination." 31 The District Court did not undertake a determination on whether a Title VII violation of this nature had occurred. 32 It follows that we must remand in order that the court may ascertain whether, as in Bundy, Vinson was subjected to "sexually stereotyped insults" or "demeaning propositions" that illegally poisoned the "psychological and emotional work environment." 33

The District Court further found that

[i]f [Vinson] and Taylor did engage in an intimate or sexual relationship during the time of [Vinson's] employment with Capital, that relationship was a voluntary one by [Vinson] having nothing to do with her continued employment at Capital or her advancement or promotions at that institution. 34

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This finding leaves us uncertain as to precisely what the court meant. It could reflect the view that there was no Title VII violation because Vinson's employment status was not affected, an error to which we already have spoken. Alternatively, the finding could indicate that because the relationship was voluntary there was no sexual harassment--no "[u]nwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature ... ha[ving] the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual's work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment." 35 If, however, the evidence warranted a finding of sexual harassment by that standard, Vinson's "voluntar[iness]" had no materiality whatsoever. 36

Bundy held that a woman employee need not prove resistance to sexual overtures in order to establish a Title VII claim of sexual harassment. 37 From that point we take what is hardly a major step by recognizing that a victim's capitulation to on-the-job sexual advances cannot work a forfeiture of her opportunity for redress. If capitulation were dispositive, the "cruel trilemma" identified in Bundy --in which a victim must choose among acquiescence in the harassment, opposition to it, or resignation from her job 38--would be an even more hideous quadrilemma featuring a fourth option--to yield and thereby lose all hope of legal redress for being put in this intolerable position in the first place. We cannot ascribe to Congress a willingness to visit such an unenviable quandary upon an employee. A victim's "voluntary" submission to unlawful discrimination of this sort can have no bearing on the pertinent inquiry: whether Taylor made Vinson's toleration of sexual harassment a condition of her employment.

Another matter, an evidentiary ruling, prompts brief discussion. The District Court refused to allow Vinson to elicit, from other women under Taylor's supervision during her tenure, testimony that assertedly would have established that Taylor sexually harassed them also. Some testimony of this kind was admitted on the issue of notice to Capital City of Taylor's behavior, but Vinson was not permitted to use it in her case-in-chief for other purposes. 39 Bundy makes clear that evidence tending to show Taylor's harassment of other women working alongside Vinson is directly relevant to the question whether he created an environment violative of Title VII. 40 Even a woman who was never herself the object of harassment might have a Title VII claim if she were forced to work in an atmosphere in which such harassment was pervasive. 41 The District Court erred when it denied Vinson the opportunity to demonstrate that Taylor had directed his advances toward other women also.

III

The District Court also ruled that Vinson's employer, Capital City, could not be

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held responsible for any infringements of Title VII by Taylor because it had no notice of the offensive conduct charged to him. 42 To the court, "it seem[ed] reasonable that an employer should not be liable in these unusual cases of sexual harassment where notice to the employer must depend upon the actual perpetrator and when there is nothing else to place the employer on notice." 43 We cannot accept this conclusion or its rationale.

So much as this court has heretofore decided runs counter to the District...

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