Harris v. Forklift Systems, Inc.
Decided on Nov. 9, 1993; 510 US 17


I. ISSUES II. CASE SUMMARY III. AMICI CURIAE IV. DECISION V. WIN OR LOSS?
I. ISSUES:

A. Issues Discussed: Sexual Harassment

B. Legal Question Presented:

Must sexual harassment seriously affect an employee's psychological well being in order to create an abusive work environment that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964?

II. CASE SUMMARY:

A. Background:

"Teresa Harris worked as a manager at Forklift Systems, Inc., an equipment rental company, from April 1985 until October 1987. Charles Hardy was Forklift's president.

The Magistrate found that, throughout Harris' time at Forklift, Hardy often insulted her because of her gender and often made her the target of unwanted sexual innuendos. Hardy told Harris on several occasions, in the presence of other employees, 'You're a woman, what do you know' and 'We need a man as the rental manager'; at least once, he told her she was 'a dumb ass woman.' Again in front of others, he suggested that the two of them 'go to the Holiday Inn to negotiate [Harris'] raise.' Hardy occasionally asked Harris and other female employees to get coins from his front pants pocket. He threw objects on the ground in front of Harris and other women, and asked them to pick the objects up. He made sexual innuendos about Harris' and other women's clothing.

In mid August 1987, Harris complained to Hardy about his conduct. Hardy said he was surprised that Harris was offended, claimed he was only joking, and apologized. He also promised he would stop, and based on this assurance Harris stayed on the job. But in early September, Hardy began anew: While Harris was arranging a deal with one of Forklift's customers, he asked her, again in front of other employees, 'What did you do, promise the guy... some [sex] Saturday night?'. On October 1, Harris collected her paycheck and quit.

Harris then sued Forklift, claiming that Hardy's conduct had created an abusive work environment for her because of her gender. The United States District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee, adopting the report and recommendation of the Magistrate, found this to be 'a close case,' but held that Hardy's conduct did not create an abusive environment. The court found that some of Hardy's comments 'offended [Harris], and would offend the reasonable woman,' but that they were not 'so severe as to be expected to seriously affect [Harris'] psychological well being. A reasonable woman manager under like circumstances would have been offended by Hardy, but his conduct would not have risen to the level of interfering with that person's work performance.'"

On certiorari, the US Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals.

B. Counsel of Record:
ACLU Side
(Petitioner/Appellant)
Opposing Side
(Respondent/Appellee)
Unavailable Unavailable
C. The Arguments:
ACLU Side
(Petitioner/Appellant)
Opposing Side
(Respondent/Appellee)
Unavailable Unavailable
III. AMICI CURIAE:
ACLU Side
(Petitioner/Appellant)
Opposing Side
(Respondent/Appellee)
Brief of amici curiae urging reversal were filed by the American Civil Liberties Union by Steven R. Shapiro, JA Powell, and LC Waldman. Unavailable
IV. THE SUPREME COURT'S DECISION:

"Certainly Title VII bars conduct that would seriously affect a reasonable person's psychological well being, but the statute is not limited to such conduct. So long as the environment would reasonably be perceived, and is perceived, as hostile or abusive there is no need for it also to be psychologically injurious.

This is not, and by its nature cannot be, a mathematically precise test. We need not answer today all the potential questions it raises, nor specifically address the EEOC's new regulations on this subject. But we can say that whether an environment is 'hostile' or 'abusive' can be determined only by looking at all the circumstances. These may include the frequency of the discriminatory conduct; its severity; whether it is physically threatening or humiliating, or a mere offensive utterance; and whether it unreasonably interferes with an employee's work performance. The effect on the employee's psychological well being is, of course, relevant to determining whether the plaintiff actually found the environment abusive. But while psychological harm, like any otherrelevant factor, may be taken into account, no single factor is required."

The US Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the 6th US Court of Appeals and remanded the case for further proceedings.

Justice Vote: 9 Pro vs. 0 Con
 
  • O'Connor, S. Pro (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Scalia, A. Pro (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • Ginsburg, R. Pro (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • Kennedy, A. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Souter, D. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Thomas, C. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Blackmun, H. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Rehnquist, W. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Stevens, J. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
V. A WIN OR LOSS FOR THE ACLU?

The ACLU, as amicus curiae, urged reversal of the judgment of the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals; the Supreme Court reversed and remanded in a 9-0 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent win .