Justices widen rules against sex harassment Ruling on case of Tenn. woman is unanimous

November 10, 1993|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Acting swiftly and unanimously on a dispute that reaches factories and offices all across the nation, the Supreme Court gave female workers sweeping new legal protection yesterday against smutty words and gestures on the job.

The court, in its first ruling on sexual harassment since that issue gained national prominence during Senate hearings on Justice Clarence Thomas' nomination in 1991, said women claiming to be harassed in the workplace do not have to prove they suffered psychologically from "abusive" language or actions.

Written by one of the court's two female members, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the decision spelled out a new formula that appeared to make it easier to prove sexual harassment.

It appeared that the ruling had been reached easily by the justices, who listened to oral arguments on the case less than a month ago.

The law at issue protects men as well as women from sexual harassment on the job, but women's rights groups say their studies show that 90 percent of all complaints of that kind are made by women workers. There are some 22,000 complaints a year of sexual harassment in U.S. workplaces, according to government statistics.

The decision was a temporary victory for Teresa Harris, 41, of Nashville, who has been pursuing a sexual harassment complaint against her former employer for six years. The Supreme Court sent the case back to the lower courts yesterday for review.

Reached at her lawyer's office in Nashville yesterday, Ms. Harris, 41, said she had worked all night at her job as a hospital nurse and learned from her lawyer this morning about the ruling. "I haven't been to sleep yet," she remarked, adding that she was "very excited; I'm thrilled," but not surprised.

While working as a rental agent for Forklift Systems, Inc., an equipment leasing company in Nashville, Ms. Harris claimed that the company president, Charles Hardy, repeatedly abused her with sexual remarks and gestures, causing her to quit. He insisted he was only joking, and lower courts ruled that Ms. Harris' legal rights had not been violated.

The new decision was hailed by a variety of women's rights organizations as a major victory -- "enormous and meaningful," as the Women's Legal Defense Fund's general counsel, Donna Lenhoff, put it.

The justices' decision yesterday came after a new look at a theory of sex bias they first spelled out in a unanimous 1986 ruling: It is illegal discrimination if a worker is the target of sex-based harassment by colleagues or bosses when that creates a "hostile" environment in the office or factory for that worker.

Yesterday, the court gave a more specific list of factors to guide courts in sexual harassment cases based on sex-based language or gestures:

* Is that kind of conduct frequent?

* Is it severe?

* Is it "physically threatening or humiliating?"

* Does it interfere "unreasonably" in a worker's job performance?

* Would it seem "hostile or abusive" to "a reasonable person?"

* Does the individual worker who is the target view the workplace environment as "abusive?"

Stressing that there can be no "mathematically precise test" of harassment, Justice O'Connor said that courts are to review "all the circumstances. . . . No single factor is required."

While the court was unanimous yesterday, two justices added separate opinions of their own.

The court's other woman member, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, penned her first opinion since joining the court last summer. She embraced an even more lenient standard of proof for female workers: proof merely that harassment "made it more difficult to do the job."

Justice Antonin Scalia's separate opinion complained that the new legal formula was vague but that he could not improve upon it.

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