Today in 1998: Supreme Court rules federal laws prohibit same-sex harassment in the workplace.

March 4, 2011

Today in Legal HistoryWhile it may strike many as bizarre, federal laws prohibiting sexual harassment in the workplace did not apply to same-sex harassment until 1998.

The change came on March 4, 1998 when the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services.

The case involved a worker on an oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico.  The worker, Joseph Oncale, suffered several sex-related, humiliating actions by his co-workers in front of the rest of the crew.

Two co-workers also physically assaulted Oncale in a sexual manner, and one of the co-workers threatened Oncale with rape.

Oncale’s complaints to supervisory personnel were essentially ignored. In fact, the company’s Safety Compliance Clerk told him that the same thing happened to him, and then called him a name suggesting homosexuality.

Oncale eventually quit later stating “I felt that if I didn’t leave my job, that I would be raped or forced to have sex.”

Oncale’s suit, which alleged that he endured discrimination because of his sex, lost out to a summary judgment ruling in district court, and the decision was affirmed on appeal. Both courts, heavily relying on precedent, found that Oncale had no claim under Title VII because an individual could not be discriminated on the basis of his or her sex by a member of the same sex.

When viewing the idea the way the lower courts did, it doesn’t seem so farfetched.  After all, how do you discriminate against a group that you yourself are a part of?

Supreme Court Building

The Supreme Court took a different approach, however.  In a unanimous opinion written by Justice Scalia, the Court essentially clarified Title VII’s “discriminate” to include any discrimination that occurred “because of” sex.

Ironically, despite the fact that all of the parties involved were heterosexual, the case has subsequently been lauded as a landmark gay rights case. Furthermore, the case did not outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation, which is still legal under federal law.

In fact, courts have strained to differentiate between discrimination based on sexual orientation, allowable under federal law, and unlawful discrimination because of sex.

Regardless, the decision has afforded rights in the workplace to both men and women of any sexual orientation.