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Harris v. Forklift Systems, Inc.


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510 U.S. 17 (1993), argued 13 Oct. 1993, decided 9 Nov. 1993, by vote of 9 to o; O’Connor for the Court, Scalia and Ginsburg concurring. Between 1991 and 1993 the number of sexual harassment claims filed around the country almost doubled to 12,500. The increase reflected the impact of the navy's Tailhook scandal, accusations against Senator Bob Packwood, and Anita Hill's charges against Clarence Thomas. It also, however, reflected the day-to-day reality of life in the American working place, where sexual innuendo and harassment were realities. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made it illegal for an employer to discriminate against an employee based on sex. The Supreme Court in Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinton (1986) held that Title VII gave individuals the right to be free from discriminatory intimidation and ridicule and that harassment included unwelcome sexual advances and requests for sexual favors. Such actions created a hostile work environment according to the Court. Yet Meritor also insisted that the best evidence of a hostile work environment was psychological damage done to the individual resulting in a failure to perform in the workplace. The Court in Harris fashioned new standards.

Teresa Harris in 1987 was a thirty-five year-old white woman who had worked for two years as rental manager at Forklift Systems, Inc. in Nashville, Tennessee. Two months before she quit in October of that year, she filed a complaint alleging that the company's president, Charles Hardy, had created a hostile work environment by, among other things, calling her a “dumb-ass woman” and asking her, and others, to retrieve coins from his front pants pocket. A federal district court in Tennessee had found that Harris was not protected by Title VII since the four-time divorced woman had not suffered any psychological injury on the job. The Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed this decision.

The Supreme Court, however, unanimously reversed the decision and remanded the case back to the lower court. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor's opinion made two important contributions to the constitutional law surrounding sexual harassment. First, O’Connor held that a person need not be damaged psychologically to demonstrate the presence of sexual harassment and a hostile work environment. The Court did not reject that standard but instead found that a person deserved the protection of federal law before she suffered a nervous breakdown. Moreover, O’Connor continued, it was not necessary for a plaintiff to show that her job performance had suffered as a result of the harassment. Instead, courts were expected to examine a whole constellation of conditions including the frequency of discriminatory conduct, the severity of such conduct, and whether it was physically threatening or humiliating. Hardy's counsel, for example, had argued that his client was merely joking and that other employees recognized his behavior as such. Indeed, Hardy asserted that Harris herself did not appear to mind. The Court rejected this premise.

Justices Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg both concurred. The former insisted that the measure to be used in such cases was whether the harassment had the effect of altering the conditions of the working place in a discriminatory way; the latter suggested that sex discrimination be treated as seriously as discrimination based on race.

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Subjects: Law.


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