ONCALE v. SUNDOWNER OFFSHORE SERVICES, INC., 523 U.S. 75 (1998) 118 S.Ct. 998
JOSEPH ONCALE, PETITIONER v. SUNDOWNER OFFSHORE SERVICES, INCORPORATED, ET AL.
CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FIFTH CIRCUIT
Argued December 3, 1997
Decided March 4, 1998
Petitioner Oncale filed a complaint against his employer,
respondent Sundowner Offshore Services, Inc., claiming that
sexual harassment directed against him by respondent co-workers in
their workplace constituted "discriminat[ion] . . . because
of . . . sex" prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of
1964, 42 U.S.C. Ã‚Â§ 2000e-2(a)(1). Relying on Fifth Circuit
precedent, the District Court held that Oncale, a male, had no
Title VII cause of action for harassment by male co-workers. The
Fifth Circuit affirmed.
Held: Sex discrimination consisting of same-sex sexual
harassment is actionable under Title VII. Title VII's
prohibition of discrimination "because of . . . sex" protects men
as well as women, Newport News Shipbuilding & Dry Dock
Co. v. EEOC, 462 U.S. 669, 682, and in the related
context of racial discrimination in the workplace this Court has
rejected any conclusive presumption that an employer will not
discriminate against members of his own race, Castaneda
v. Partida, 430 U.S. 482, 499. There is no
justification in Title VII's language or the Court's precedents
for a categorical rule barring a claim of discrimination "because
of . . . sex" merely because the plaintiff and the defendant (or
the person charged with acting on behalf of the defendant) are of
the same sex. Recognizing liability for same-sex harassment will
not transform Title VII into a general civility code for the
American workplace, since Title VII is directed at discrimination
because of sex, not merely conduct tinged with offensive sexual
connotations; since the statute does not reach genuine but innocuous
differences in the ways men and women routinely interact with members
of the same, and the opposite, sex; and since the objective severity
of harassment should be judged from the perspective of a
reasonable person in the plaintiff's position, considering all
the circumstances. Pp. 78-82.
83 F.3d 118, reversed and remanded.
SCALIA, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court. THOMAS,
J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 82.
Nicholas Canaday III argued the cause for petitioner. With him
on briefs were Andre P. LaPlace and Eric Schnapper.
Deputy Solicitor General Kneedler argued the cause for the
United States as amicu curiae urging reversal. On the brief were
Acting Solicitor General Waxman, Beth S. Brinkmann, C. Gregory
Stewart, J. Ray Terry, Jr., Gwendolyn Young Reams, and Carolyn L.
Harry M. Reasoner argued the cause for respondents. With him on
the brief were John H. Smither, Marie R. Yeates, Thomas H. Wilson,
and Samuel Issacharoff.[fn*]
[fn*] Briefs of amici curiae urging reversal were filed for the
Association of Trial Lawyers of America by Ellen Simon Sacks
and Christopher P. Thorman; for the Lambda Legal Defense and
Education Fund et al. by Beatrice Dohrn, John Davidson, Ruth
Harlow, Steven R. Shapiro, Sara L. Mandelbaum, and Minna J.
Kotkin; for the National Employment Lawyers Association by
Margaret A. Harris and Anne Golden; for the National Organization
on Male Sexual Vicimization, In., by Catharine A. MacKinnon; and
for Law professors by Nan D. Hunter.
Briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance were filed for the Equal
Employment Advisory Council by Robert E. Williams and Ann Elizabeth
Reesman; and for the Texas Association of Business & Chambers of
Commerce by Jeffrey C. Londa and Linda Ottinger Headley.
JUSTICE SCALIA delivered the opinion of the Court.
This case presents the question whether workplace harassment can
violate Title VII's prohibition against "discriminat[ion] . . .
because of . . . sex," 42 U.S.C. Ã‚Â§ 2000e-2(a)(1), when the
harasser and the harassed employee are of the same sex.
The District Court having granted summary judgment for
respondents, we must assume the facts to be as alleged by
petitioner Joseph Oncale. The precise details are irrelevant
to the legal point we must decide, and in the interest of both
brevity and dignity we shall describe them only generally. In
late October 1991, Oncale was working for respondent Sundowner
Offshore Services, Inc., on a Chevron U.S.A., Inc., oil platform in the
Gulf of Mexico. He was employed as a roustabout on an eight-man
crew which included respondents John Lyons, Danny Pippen, and
Brandon Johnson. Lyons, the crane operator, and Pippen, the
driller, had supervisory authority, App. 41, 77, 43. On several
occasions, Oncale was forcibly subjected to sex-related,
humiliating actions against him by Lyons, Pippen, and Johnson in
the presence of the rest of the crew. Pippen and Lyons also
physically assaulted Oncale in a sexual manner, and Lyons
threatened him with rape.
Oncale's complaints to supervisory personnel produced no remedial
action; in fact, the company's Safety Compliance Clerk, Valent
Hohen, told Oncale that Lyons and Pippen "picked [on] him all the
time too," and called him a name suggesting homosexuality.
Id., at 77. Oncale eventually quit Ã¢â‚¬â€ asking that
his pink slip reflect that he "voluntarily left due to sexual
harassment and verbal abuse." Id., at 79. When asked
at his deposition why he left Sundowner, Oncale stated: "I felt
that if I didn't leave my job, that I would be raped or forced to
have sex." Id., at 71.
Oncale filed a complaint against Sundowner in the United States
District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, alleging
that he was discriminated against in his employment because of
his sex. Relying on the Fifth Circuit's decision in
Garcia v. Elf Atochem North America,
28 F.3d 446, 451-452 (1994), the District Court held that "Mr.
Oncale, a male, has no cause of action under Title VII for
harassment by male co-workers." App. 106. On appeal, a panel of
the Fifth Circuit concluded that Garcia was binding
Circuit precedent, and affirmed. 83 F.3d 118 (1996). We granted
certiorari. 520 U.S. 1263 (1997).
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 provides, in relevant
part, that "[i]t shall be an unlawful employment practice for an
employer . . . to discriminate against any individual with respect
to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment,
because of such individual's race, color, religion, sex, or national
origin." 78 Stat. 255, as amended, 42 U.S.C. Ã‚Â§ 2000e-2(a)(1).
We have held that this not only covers "terms" and "conditions"
in the narrow contractual sense, but "evinces a congressional intent
to strike at the entire spectrum of disparate treatment of men and
women in employment." Meritor Savings Bank, FSB v. Vinson,
477 U.S. 57, 64 (1986) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted).
"When the workplace is permeated with discriminatory
intimidation, ridicule, and insult that is sufficiently severe or
pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim's employment and
create an abusive working environment, Title VII is violated."
Harris v. Forklift Systems, Inc., 510 U.S. 17,
21 (1993) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted).
Title VII's prohibition of discrimination "because of . . . sex"
protects men as well as women, Newport News Shipbuilding &
Dry Dock Co. v. EEOC, 462 U.S. 669, 682 (1983), and
in the related context of racial discrimination in the workplace
we have rejected any conclusive presumption that an employer will
not discriminate against members of his own race. "Because of
the many facets of human motivation, it would be unwise to
presume as a matter of law that human beings of one definable
group will not discriminate against other members of their group."
Castaneda v. Partida, 430 U.S. 482, 499 (1977).
See also id., at 515-516 n. 6 (Powell, J., joined by
Burger, C.J., and REHNQUIST, J., dissenting). In
Johnson v. Transportation Agency, Santa Clara
Cty., 480 U.S. 616 (1987), a male employee claimed that his
employer discriminated against him because of his sex when it
preferred a female employee for promotion. Although
we ultimately rejected the claim on other grounds, we did not
consider it significant that the supervisor who made that
decision was also a man. See id., at 624-625. If our
precedents leave any doubt on the question, we hold today that
nothing in Title VII necessarily bars a claim of discrimination
"because of . . . sex" merely because the plaintiff and the
defendant (or the person charged with acting on behalf of the
defendant) are of the same sex.
Courts have had little trouble with that principle in cases like
Johnson, where an employee claims to have been passed
over for a job or promotion. But when the issue arises in the
context of a "hostile environment" sexual harassment claim, the
state and federal courts have taken a bewildering variety of
stances. Some, like the Fifth Circuit in this case, have held
that same-sex sexual harassment claims are never cognizable under
Title VII. See also, e.g., Goluszek v.
H.P. Smith, 697 F. Supp. 1452 (ND Ill. 1988). Other
decisions say that such claims are actionable only if the
plaintiff can prove that the harasser is homosexual (and thus
presumably motivated by sexual desire). Compare
McWilliams v. Fairfax County Board of
Supervisors, 72 F.3d 1191 (CA4 1996), with
Wrightson v. Pizza Hut of America, 99 F.3d 138
(CA4 1996). Still others suggest that workplace harassment that
is sexual in content is always actionable, regardless of the
harasser's sex, sexual orientation, or motivations. See
Doe v. Belleville, 119 F.3d 563 (CA7 1997).
We see no justification in the statutory language or our
precedents for a categorical rule excluding same-sex harassment
claims from the coverage of Title VII. As some courts have
observed, male-on-male sexual harassment in the workplace was
assuredly not the principal evil Congress was concerned with when
it enacted Title VII. But statutory prohibitions often go beyond
the principal evil to cover reasonably comparable evils, and it
is ultimately the provisions of our laws rather than the
principal concerns of our legislators by which we are governed.
Title VII prohibits "discriminat[ion] . . .
because of . . . sex" in the "terms" or "conditions" of
employment. Our holding that this includes sexual harassment must
extend to sexual harassment of any kind that meets the statutory
Respondents and their amici contend that recognizing
liability for same-sex harassment will transform Title VII
into a general civility code for the American workplace. But that
risk is no greater for same-sex than for opposite-sex harassment,
and is adequately met by careful attention to the requirements of
the statute. Title VII does not prohibit all verbal or physical
harassment in the workplace; it is directed only at
"discriminat[ion] . . . because of . . . sex." We have
never held that workplace harassment, even harassment between men
and women, is automatically discrimination because of sex merely
because the words used have sexual content or connotations. "The
critical issue, Title VII's text indicates, is whether members of
one sex are exposed to disadvantageous terms or conditions of
employment to which members of the other sex are not exposed."
Harris, supra, at 25 (GINSBURG, J., concurring).
Courts and juries have found the inference of discrimination easy
to draw in most male-female sexual harassment situations, because
the challenged conduct typically involves explicit or implicit
proposals of sexual activity; it is reasonable to assume those
proposals would not have been made to someone of the same sex.
The same chain of inference would be available to a plaintiff
alleging same-sex harassment, if there were credible evidence
that the harasser was homosexual. But harassing conduct need not
be motivated by sexual desire to support an inference of
discrimination on the basis of sex. A trier of fact might
reasonably find such discrimination, for example, if a female
victim is harassed in such sex-specific and derogatory terms by
another woman as to make it clear that the harasser is motivated
by general hostility to the presence of women in the workplace.
A same-sex harassment plaintiff may also, of course, offer direct
comparative evidence about how the alleged harasser treated
members of both sexes in a mixed-sex workplace. Whatever
evidentiary route the plaintiff chooses to follow, he or she must
always prove that the conduct at issue was not merely tinged with
offensive sexual connotations, but actually constituted
"discrimina[tion] . . . because of . . . sex."
And there is another requirement that prevents Title VII from
expanding into a general civility code: As we emphasized in
Meritor and Harris, the statute does not reach
genuine but innocuous differences in the ways men and women
routinely interact with members of the same sex and of the
opposite sex. The prohibition of harassment on the basis of sex
requires neither asexuality nor androgyny in the workplace; it
forbids only behavior so objectively offensive as to alter the
"conditions" of the victim's employment. "Conduct that is not
severe or pervasive enough to create an objectively hostile or
abusive work environment Ã¢â‚¬â€ an environment that a reasonable
person would find hostile or abusive Ã¢â‚¬â€ is beyond Title
VII's purview." Harris, 510 U.S., at 21, citing
Meritor, 477 U.S., at 67. We have always regarded that
requirement as crucial, and as sufficient to ensure that courts
and juries do not mistake ordinary socializing in the workplace
Ã¢â‚¬â€ such as male-on-male horseplay or intersexual flirtation
Ã¢â‚¬â€ for discriminatory "conditions of employment."
We have emphasized, moreover, that the objective severity of
harassment should be judged from the perspective of a reasonable
person in the plaintiff's position, considering "all the
circumstances." Harris, supra, at 23. In same-sex (as
in all) harassment cases, that inquiry requires careful
consideration of the social context in which particular behavior
occurs and is experienced by its target. A professional football
player's working environment is not severely or pervasively
abusive, for example, if the coach smacks him on the buttocks as
he heads onto the field Ã¢â‚¬â€ even if the same behavior would
reasonably be experienced as abusive by the coach's secretary
(male or female) back at the office. The
real social impact of workplace behavior often depends on a
constellation of surrounding circumstances, expectations, and
relationships which are not fully captured by a simple recitation
of the words used or the physical acts performed. Common sense,
and an appropriate sensitivity to social context, will enable
courts and juries to distinguish between simple teasing or
roughhousing among members of the same sex, and conduct which a
reasonable person in the plaintiff's position would find severely
hostile or abusive.
Because we conclude that sex discrimination consisting of same-sex
sexual harassment is actionable under Title VII, the judgment
of the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit is reversed, and
the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this
It is so ordered.
JUSTICE THOMAS, concurring.
I concur because the Court stresses that in every sexual
harassment case, the plaintiff must plead and ultimately prove
Title VII's statutory requirement that there be discrimination
"because of . . . sex."