Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, Inc.
523 U.S. 75 (1998)

Annotate this Case

OCTOBER TERM, 1997

Syllabus

ONCALE v. SUNDOWNER OFFSHORE SERVICES, INC., ET AL.

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FIFTH CIRCUIT

No. 96-568. 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. § 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.


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Nicholas Canaday III argued the cause for petitioner.

With him on the briefs were Andre P. LaPlace and Eric Schnapper.

Deputy Solicitor General Kneedler argued the cause for the United States as amicus curiae urging reversal. On the brief were Acting Solicitor General Dellinger, Acting Assistant Attorney General Pinzler, Deputy Solicitor General Waxman, Beth S. Brinkmann, C. Gregory Stewart, J. Ray Terry, Jr., Gwendolyn Young Reams, and Carolyn L. Wheeler.

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*

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. § 2000e-2(a)(1), when the harasser and the harassed employee are of the same sex.

I

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

*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 Victimization, Inc., 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.


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Full Text of Opinion

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