Harris v. Forklift Systems Inc.

510 U.S. 17
Brief Filed: 4/93
Court: Supreme Court of the United States
Year of Decision: 1993

Read the full-text amicus brief (PDF, 342KB)

Issue

Whether a sexual harassment plaintiff must prove not only that the conduct causing complaint would have offended a reasonable victim, and that the plaintiff was in fact offended, but also that the conduct caused the plaintiff to suffer serious psychological injury

Index Topics

Employment (sexual harassment); Sexual Harassment

Facts

In 1986, Teresa Harris, who was employed as a rental manager with Forklift Systems Inc., complained about comments and behaviors directed to her by Forklift's president, Charles Hardy. She claimed that Hardy's sexually harassing conduct caused her to suffer PTSD-like symptoms and that she was ready to resign when Hardy apologized and claimed he was only kidding. Later, after concluding that the harassment would not stop, she left Forklift and filed her complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The case was eventually heard by a U.S. magistrate judge whose report and recommendations were adopted by the district court. The district court concluded that Hardy was crude and vulgar, that Harris was the subject of a continuing pattern of sex-based derogatory conduct by Hardy, that Harris had been offended by the conduct, and that the conduct would have offended a reasonable person. Nevertheless, the court concluded that Harris did not suffer serious psychological injury and, therefore, Hardy's conduct did not create a hostile work environment. Based on this finding, the case was dismissed. Harris appealed to the Sixth Circuit which affirmed the district court. The Supreme Court granted certiorari.

APA's position

APA's amicus brief argued that: (1) including psychological injury as an element of a hostile work environment claim (a) frustrates Title VII's purposes and does not effectively identify cases in which equal employment opportunity has been denied, (b) insulates from the reach of Title VII many instances in which equal opportunity employment is denied, (c) further undermines Title VII's purposes by deterring reporting of severe sexual harassment and discouraging recourse to Title VII, and (d) weakens Title VII's power to eliminate discriminatory harassment in the workplace; and (2) women and men perceive behavior that can be characterized as sexual harassment differently.

Results

The U.S. Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, reiterated its earlier decisions that conduct which is merely offensive does not violate Title VII. Title VII comes into play before the harassing conduct leads to a nervous breakdown, and severe or pervasive discriminatory conduct, even if it produces no tangible effects, violates Title VII's broad rule of workplace equality. Accordingly, a plaintiff alleging sexual harassment need not demonstrate any concrete psychological harm. The challenged conduct must be sufficient to create an objectively hostile or abusive working environment — an environment that a reasonable person would find hostile or abusive. This formulation rejected, at least implicitly, the "reasonable woman" or "reasonable victim standard" proposed by some lower courts and the EEOC.