Burlington Indus., Inc. v. Ellerth, No. 97–569.

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtJustice KENNEDY delivered the opinion of the Court.
Citation524 U.S. 742,141 L.Ed.2d 633,118 S.Ct. 2257
Parties BURLINGTON INDUSTRIES, INC., Petitioner, v. Kimberly B. ELLERTH.
Docket NumberNo. 97–569.
Decision Date26 June 1998

524 U.S. 742
118 S.Ct.
2257
141 L.Ed.2d 633

BURLINGTON INDUSTRIES, INC., Petitioner,
v.
Kimberly B. ELLERTH.

No. 97–569.

Supreme Court of the United States

Argued April 22, 1998.
Decided June 26, 1998.


James J. Casey, for petitioner.

Ernest T. Rossiello, Chicago, IL, for respondent.

Barbara D. Underwood, Brooklyn, NY, for United States as amicus curiae by special leave of this Court.

118 S.Ct. 2262

Justice KENNEDY delivered the opinion of the Court.

We decide whether, under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 78 Stat. 253, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et

524 U.S. 747

seq., an employee who refuses the unwelcome and threatening sexual advances of a supervisor, yet suffers no adverse, tangible job consequences, can recover against the employer without showing the employer is negligent or otherwise at fault for the supervisor's actions.

I

Summary judgment was granted for the employer, so we must take the facts alleged by the employee to be true. United States v. Diebold, Inc., 369 U.S. 654, 655, 82 S.Ct. 993, 994, 8 L.Ed.2d 176 (1962) (per curiam). The employer is Burlington Industries, the petitioner. The employee is Kimberly Ellerth, the respondent. From March 1993 until May 1994, Ellerth worked as a salesperson in one of Burlington's divisions in Chicago, Illinois. During her employment, she alleges, she was subjected to constant sexual harassment by her supervisor, one Ted Slowik.

In the hierarchy of Burlington's management structure, Slowik was a midlevel manager. Burlington has eight divisions, employing more than 22,000 people in some 50 plants around the United States. Slowik was a vice president in one of five business units within one of the divisions. He had authority to make hiring and promotion decisions subject to the approval of his supervisor, who signed the paperwork. See 912 F.Supp. 1101, 1119, n. 14 (N.D.Ill.1996). According to Slowik's supervisor, his position was "not considered an upper-level management position," and he was "not amongst the decision-making or policy-making hierarchy." Ibid. Slowik was not Ellerth's immediate supervisor. Ellerth worked in a two-person office in Chicago, and she answered to her office colleague, who in turn answered to Slowik in New York.

Against a background of repeated boorish and offensive remarks and gestures which Slowik allegedly made, Ellerth places particular emphasis on three alleged incidents where Slowik's comments could be construed as threats to deny her

524 U.S. 748

tangible job benefits. In the summer of 1993, while on a business trip, Slowik invited Ellerth to the hotel lounge, an invitation Ellerth felt compelled to accept because Slowik was her boss. App. 155. When Ellerth gave no encouragement to remarks Slowik made about her breasts, he told her to "loosen up" and warned, "you know, Kim, I could make your life very hard or very easy at Burlington." Id., at 156.

In March 1994, when Ellerth was being considered for a promotion, Slowik expressed reservations during the promotion interview because she was not "loose enough." Id., at 159. The comment was followed by his reaching over and rubbing her knee. Ibid. Ellerth did receive the promotion; but when Slowik called to announce it, he told Ellerth, "you're gonna be out there with men who work in factories, and they certainly like women with pretty butts/legs." Id., at 159–160.

In May 1994, Ellerth called Slowik, asking permission to insert a customer's logo into a fabric sample. Slowik responded, "I don't have time for you right now, Kim ...—unless you want to tell me what you're wearing." Id., at 78. Ellerth told Slowik she had to go and ended the call. Ibid. A day or two later, Ellerth called Slowik to ask permission again. This time he denied her request, but added something along the lines of, "are you wearing shorter skirts yet, Kim, because it would make your job a whole heck of a lot easier." Id., at 79.

A short time later, Ellerth's immediate supervisor cautioned her about returning telephone calls to customers in a prompt fashion. 912 F.Supp., at 1109. In response, Ellerth quit. She faxed a letter giving reasons unrelated to the alleged sexual harassment we have described. Ibid. About three weeks later, however, she sent a letter explaining she quit because of Slowik's behavior. Ibid.

During her tenure at Burlington, Ellerth did not inform anyone in authority about Slowik's conduct, despite knowing Burlington had a policy against sexual harassment. Ibid.

524 U.S. 749

In fact, she chose not to inform her

118 S.Ct. 2263

immediate supervisor (not Slowik) because " ‘it would be his duty as my supervisor to report any incidents of sexual harassment.’ " Ibid. On one occasion, she told Slowik a comment he made was inappropriate. Ibid.

In October 1994, after receiving a right-to-sue letter from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), Ellerth filed suit in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, alleging Burlington engaged in sexual harassment and forced her constructive discharge, in violation of Title VII. The District Court granted summary judgment to Burlington. The court found Slowik's behavior, as described by Ellerth, severe and pervasive enough to create a hostile work environment, but found Burlington neither knew nor should have known about the conduct. There was no triable issue of fact on the latter point, and the court noted Ellerth had not used Burlington's internal complaint procedures. Id., at 1118. Although Ellerth's claim was framed as a hostile work environment complaint, the District Court observed there was a quid pro quo "component" to the hostile environment. Id., at 1121. Proceeding from the premise that an employer faces vicarious liability for quid pro quo harassment, the District Court thought it necessary to apply a negligence standard because the quid pro quo merely contributed to the hostile work environment. See id., at 1123. The District Court also dismissed Ellerth's constructive discharge claim.

The Court of Appeals en banc reversed in a decision which produced eight separate opinions and no consensus for a controlling rationale. The judges were able to agree on the problem they confronted: Vicarious liability, not failure to comply with a duty of care, was the essence of Ellerth's case against Burlington on appeal. The judges seemed to agree Ellerth could recover if Slowik's unfulfilled threats to deny her tangible job benefits was sufficient to impose vicarious liability on Burlington. Jansen v. Packaging Corp.

524 U.S. 750

of America, 123 F.3d 490, 494 (C.A.7 1997) (per curiam ). With the exception of Judges Coffey and Easterbrook, the judges also agreed Ellerth's claim could be categorized as one of quid pro quo harassment, even though she had received the promotion and had suffered no other tangible retaliation. Ibid.

The consensus disintegrated on the standard for an employer's liability for such a claim. Six judges, Judges Flaum, Cummings, Bauer, Evans, Rovner, and Diane P. Wood, agreed the proper standard was vicarious liability, and so Ellerth could recover even though Burlington was not negligent. Ibid. They had different reasons for the conclusion. According to Judges Flaum, Cummings, Bauer, and Evans, whether a claim involves a quid pro quo determines whether vicarious liability applies; and they in turn defined quid pro quo to include a supervisor's threat to inflict a tangible job injury whether or not it was completed. Id., at 499. Judges Wood and Rovner interpreted agency principles to impose vicarious liability on employers for most claims of supervisor sexual harassment, even absent a quid pro quo. Id., at 565.

Although Judge Easterbrook did not think Ellerth had stated a quid pro quo claim, he would have followed the law of the controlling State to determine the employer's liability, and by this standard, the employer would be liable here. Id., at 552. In contrast, Judge Kanne said Ellerth had stated a quid pro quo claim, but negligence was the appropriate standard of liability when the quid pro quo involved threats only. Id., at 505.

Chief Judge Posner, joined by Judge Manion, disagreed. He asserted Ellerth could not recover against Burlington despite having stated a quid pro quo claim. According to Chief Judge Posner, an employer is subject to vicarious liability for "act[s] that significantly alte[r] the terms or conditions of employment," or "company act[s]." Id., at 515. In the emergent terminology, an unfulfilled quid pro quo is a

524 U.S. 751

mere threat to do a company act rather than the act itself, and in these circumstances, an employer can be found liable for its negligence only. Ibid. Chief Judge Posner also found Ellerth failed to create a triable issue of fact as to Burlington's negligence. Id., at 517.

Judge Coffey rejected all of the above approaches because he favored a uniform

118 S.Ct. 2264...

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2971 practice notes
  • Powers v. Tweco Products, Inc., No. CIV.A.00-1136-MLB.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 10th Circuit. United States District Courts. 10th Circuit. District of Kansas
    • June 5, 2002
    ...employment action. See, e.g., Sanchez v. Denver Pub. Schs., 164 F.3d 527, 532 (10th Cir.1998) (citing Burlington Indus., Inc. v. Ellerth, 524 U.S. 742, 118 S.Ct. 2257, 141 L.Ed.2d 633 (1998)). Less obvious actions may also constitute an adverse action and are judged on a "case-by-case" basi......
  • Gamez v. Country Cottage Care & Rehab., No. CIV. 04-719 JB/WCS.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 10th Circuit. District of New Mexico
    • February 28, 2005
    ...with significantly different responsibilities, or a decision causing significant change in benefits." Burlington Indus. v. Ellerth, 524 U.S. 742, 761, 118 S.Ct. 2257, 141 L.Ed.2d 633 (1998). To constitute an adverse employment action, the conduct must be "`materially adverse' to the Page 11......
  • Rattigan v. Gonzales, Civil Action No. 04-2009 (ESH).
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. United States District Court (Columbia)
    • May 31, 2007
    ...Taylor v. Small, 350 F.3d 1286, 1293 (D.C.Cir.2003) (internal quotation marks omitted) (citing Burlington Indus., Inc. v. Ellerth, 524 U.S. 742, 761, 118 S.Ct. 2257, 141 L.Ed.2d 633 (1998)). Applying this precedent, the Court concludes that plaintiffs remaining claims of discrimination must......
  • Craig v. Dist. of Columbia, Civil Action No.: 11–1200 RC
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. United States District Court (Columbia)
    • November 24, 2014
    ...in Faragher v. City of Boca Raton, 524 U.S. 775, 118 S.Ct. 2275, 141 L.Ed.2d 662 (1998) and Burlington Industries Inc. v. Ellerth, 524 U.S. 742, 118 S.Ct. 2257, 141 L.Ed.2d 633 (1998) control this case. In Faragher, the Court established that “[a]n employer is subject to vicarious liability......
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3001 cases
  • Powers v. Tweco Products, Inc., No. CIV.A.00-1136-MLB.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 10th Circuit. United States District Courts. 10th Circuit. District of Kansas
    • June 5, 2002
    ...employment action. See, e.g., Sanchez v. Denver Pub. Schs., 164 F.3d 527, 532 (10th Cir.1998) (citing Burlington Indus., Inc. v. Ellerth, 524 U.S. 742, 118 S.Ct. 2257, 141 L.Ed.2d 633 (1998)). Less obvious actions may also constitute an adverse action and are judged on a "case-by-case" basi......
  • Gamez v. Country Cottage Care & Rehab., No. CIV. 04-719 JB/WCS.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 10th Circuit. District of New Mexico
    • February 28, 2005
    ...with significantly different responsibilities, or a decision causing significant change in benefits." Burlington Indus. v. Ellerth, 524 U.S. 742, 761, 118 S.Ct. 2257, 141 L.Ed.2d 633 (1998). To constitute an adverse employment action, the conduct must be "`materially adverse' to the Page 11......
  • Rattigan v. Gonzales, Civil Action No. 04-2009 (ESH).
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. United States District Court (Columbia)
    • May 31, 2007
    ...Taylor v. Small, 350 F.3d 1286, 1293 (D.C.Cir.2003) (internal quotation marks omitted) (citing Burlington Indus., Inc. v. Ellerth, 524 U.S. 742, 761, 118 S.Ct. 2257, 141 L.Ed.2d 633 (1998)). Applying this precedent, the Court concludes that plaintiffs remaining claims of discrimination must......
  • Craig v. Dist. of Columbia, Civil Action No.: 11–1200 RC
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. United States District Court (Columbia)
    • November 24, 2014
    ...in Faragher v. City of Boca Raton, 524 U.S. 775, 118 S.Ct. 2275, 141 L.Ed.2d 662 (1998) and Burlington Industries Inc. v. Ellerth, 524 U.S. 742, 118 S.Ct. 2257, 141 L.Ed.2d 633 (1998) control this case. In Faragher, the Court established that “[a]n employer is subject to vicarious liability......
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5 books & journal articles
  • Sex Discrimination Claims Under Title Vii of the Civil Rights Act of 1964
    • United States
    • Georgetown Journal of Gender and the Law Nbr. XXII-2, January 2021
    • January 1, 2021
    ...provided otherwise” in 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(m)). 38. See Price Waterhouse, 490 U.S. at 250. 39. See Burlington Indus., Inc. v. Ellerth, 524 U.S. 742, 760–61 (1998). 2021] SEX DISCRIMINATION CLAIMS UNDER TITLE VII 375 provided.40 Otherwise, employers are held vicariously liable for the harass......
  • How Sexual Harassment Law Failed Its Feminist Roots
    • United States
    • Georgetown Journal of Gender and the Law Nbr. XXII-1, October 2020
    • October 1, 2020
    ...factor to be considered in determining whether the employer was negligent”). 133. The Court in Burlington Industries, Inc. v. Ellerth, 524 U.S. 742, 759 (1998), indicated that “[a]n employer is negligent with respect to sexual harassment if it knew or should have known about the conduct and......
  • The U.S. Supreme Court Clarifies Constructive Discharge under Title VII
    • United States
    • Public Personnel Management Nbr. 36-1, March 2007
    • March 1, 2007
    ...[Online].Available: 07/21/2004 from http://www.eeoc.gov/stats/harass.html.Public Personnel Management Volume 36 No. 1 Spring 200714 3524 U.S. 742 (1998), 118 S.Ct. 2257 (1998).4524 U.S. 775 (1998), 118 S.Ct. 2275 (1998).5124 S.Ct. 2342 ( June 14, 2004).6Id., at 23527Id., at 2347.8Ibid.942 U......
  • EMPLOYMENT LAW - CAT'S PAW VICARIOUS LIABILITY DOCTRINE IMPUTES DISCRIMINATORY INTENT OF NON-EMPLOYEE STUDENT TO EMPLOYER - MENAKER V. HOFSTRA UNIV., 935 F.3D 20 (2D CIR. 2019).
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    • Suffolk Journal of Trial & Appellate Advocacy Vol. 26 Nbr. 1, January 2021
    • January 1, 2021
    ...OF AGENCY [section] 219 (determining whether conduct is performed with purpose to serve master). (24) See Burlington Indus. v. Ellerth, 524 U.S. 742, 754 (1998) (citing agency principles as basis for imputed liability). "Congress has directed federal courts to interpret Title VII based......
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