Supreme Court to decide sexual misconduct case Who should be liable when supervisors make threats against workers?

January 24, 1998|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court, widening its review of sexual harassment in the workplace, agreed yesterday to decide whether employers are to blame if a supervisor makes unwanted advances toward a worker who suffers no harm on the job for rebuffing the overtures.

A company based in Chicago, Burlington Industries, contends in an appeal that if the worker is only threatened with some loss of job opportunity for failing to submit, the threat alone should not make the company liable for supervisors' sexual harassment. The threat must be carried out for the employer to bear blame, the company argues.

Other sex misconduct cases

The Supreme Court took on that issue in the fourth case it will decide in the current term on employers' legal duty to act against sexual misconduct on the job.

Other cases test schools' responsibility if teachers harass students; employers' liability if a worker sexually harasses a fellow worker of the same sex; and employers' accountability if a supervisor's crude gestures and remarks make the work site a hostile place for the targeted worker.

The justices have moved repeatedly into this area of the law this term because lower federal courts are deeply divided on when to hold a company or institution legally at fault.

Conflicting opinions

In the case added yesterday, a federal appeals court based in Chicago -- in an opinion that split even that court eight ways -- held employers at fault even where there is only the threat of discipline or loss of opportunity from a supervisor who sexually harasses an employee.

Other appeals courts, however, have ruled that a threat is not enough to establish liability.

In a second case, the justices said they would decide whether the Americans with Disabilities Act protects disabled prison inmates from being denied access to facilities or from being otherwise the targets of discrimination because of their disability.

Federal appeals courts are divided on that issue, too.

The Justice Department, which contends that the disabilities law does extend to inmates, urged the Supreme Court to settle the dispute.

Maryland case

The justices' ruling, in a Pennsylvania case, is expected to have a direct effect in Maryland, because the decision is likely to be applied later to an appeal by 13 Maryland inmates that is pending at the court.

That appeal argues that Maryland prison officials were indifferent to the inmates' disabilities and medical needs. In that case, the federal appeals court based in Richmond ruled that the disabilities law does not protect disabled inmates.

Pub Date: 1/24/98

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