Lambda Lauds High Court's Ruling in Same-Sex Sexual Harassment Case

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U.S. Supreme Court agrees unanimously that federal law applies
March 4, 1998

(NEW YORK, March 4, 1998)-- Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund lauded Wednesday's decision by the United States Supreme Court recognizing that federal law forbids same-sex sexual harassment at work.

The High Court unanimously reversed a federal appeals court's blanket rejection of same-sex sexual harassment claims under Title VII and said that the federal law against sexual harassment at work should be applied without regard to the sex of the harasser or victim.

Lambda had filed a friend-of-the-court brief for itself and 10 other civil rights organizations in Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, Inc., arguing that a male oil-rig worker who was subjected to severe sexual harassment by male co-workers should be allowed to sue his employer under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Beatrice Dohrn, Lambda legal director and author of its amicus brief, said of the decision, "The court made clear that the focus has been, and should continue to be, on the conduct, not the sex, of the harasser. The point remains, federal law provides a remedy for any employee who is consistently exposed to sexual harassment that is so egregious and pervasive as to create a hostile work environment or who is forced to have sex as a term or condition of employment."

Joseph Oncale was hired through Sundowner's Houma, Louisiana, office, and worked on Chevron USA's Ship Shoal 266-A platform. In 1991, his supervisor and two co-workers attacked him in a shower, with the supervisor placing his penis on Oncale's head, and others forcing a bar of soap into Oncale's buttocks. Oncale reported this and other sexual assaults against him to Sundowner officials, who refused to take any action. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit upheld dismissal of Oncale's sexual harassment complaint, ruling that Title VII does not apply to same-sex sexual harassment.

Today's 9-0 Supreme Court ruling, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, revives Oncale's claim and sends it back to the district court for a trial.

"We hope the law continues to develop so that all employees, including gay men and lesbians, have equal access to sexual harassment remedies, and that all employers are held to the same standard of providing a workplace free from such harassment," said Ruth E. Harlow, Lambda managing attorney, who assisted in writing the brief.

Lambda Executive Director Kevin M. Cathcart said of the ruling, "This is a resounding statement that sexual harassment laws mean what they say, and lower courts cannot artificially carve out exceptions -- even in a same-sex context."

Now celebrating its 25th anniversary, with a national headquarters in New York and regional offices in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Atlanta, Lambda is the largest and oldest legal organization defending the civil rights of lesbians, gay men, and people with HIV and AIDS.

(Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, Inc., No. 96-596) -- 30 --

Contact: Peg Byron, 212-809-8585 x 230, 888-987-1984 (pager), Beatrice Dohrn, 212-809-8585


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