Burlington Industries, Inc. v. Ellerth
Annotate this Case
524 U.S. 742 (1998)
OCTOBER TERM, 1997
BURLINGTON INDUSTRIES, INC. v. ELLERTH
CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE SEVENTH CIRCUIT
No. 97-569. Argued April 22, 1998-Decided June 26,1998
Respondent Kimberly Ellerth quit her job after 15 months as a salesperson in one of petitioner Burlington Industries' many divisions, allegedly because she had been subjected to constant sexual harassment by one of her supervisors, Ted Slowik. Slowik was a midlevel manager who had authority to hire and promote employees, subject to higher approval, but was not considered a policymaker. Against a background of repeated boorish and offensive remarks and gestures allegedly made by Slowik, Ellerth places particular emphasis on three incidents where Slowik's comments could be construed as threats to deny her tangible job benefits. Ellerth refused all of Slowik's advances, yet suffered no tangible retaliation and was, in fact, promoted once. Moreover, she never informed anyone in authority about Slowik's conduct, despite knowing Burlington had a policy against sexual harassment. In filing this lawsuit, Ellerth alleged Burlington engaged in sexual harassment and forced her constructive discharge, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U. S. C. § 2000e et seq. The District Court granted Burlington summary judgment. The Seventh Circuit en bane reversed in a decision that produced eight separate opinions and no consensus for a controlling rationale. Among other things, those opinions focused on whether Ellerth's claim could be categorized as one of quid pro quo harassment, and on whether the standard for an employer's liability on such a claim should be vicarious liability or negligence.
Held: Under Title VII, an employee who refuses the unwelcome and threatening sexual advances of a supervisor, yet suffers no adverse, tangible job consequences, may recover against the employer without showing the employer is negligent or otherwise at fault for the supervisor's actions, but the employer may interpose an affirmative defense. Pp. 751-766.
(a) The Court assumes an important premise yet to be established: A trier offact could find in Slowik's remarks numerous threats to retaliate against Ellerth if she denied some sexual liberties. The threats, however, were not carried out. Cases based on carried-out threats are referred to often as "quid pro quo" cases, as distinct from bothersome attentions or sexual remarks sufficient to create a "hostile work environment." Those two terms do not appear in Title VII, which forbids only
"discriminat[ion] against any individual with respect to his ... terms [or] conditions ... of employment, because of ... sex." § 2000e-2(a)(1). In Meritor Savings Bank, FSB v. Vinson, 477 U. S. 57, 65, this Court distinguished between the two concepts, saying both are cognizable under Title VII, though a hostile environment claim requires harassment that is severe or pervasive. Meritor did not discuss the distinction for its bearing upon an employer's liability for discrimination, but held, with no further specifics, that agency principles controlled on this point. Id., at 72. Nevertheless, in Meritor's wake, Courts of Appeals held that, if the plaintiff established a quid pro quo claim, the employer was subject to vicarious liability. This rule encouraged Title VII plaintiffs to state their claims in quid pro quo terms, which in turn put expansive pressure on the definition. For example, the question presented here is phrased as whether Ellerth can state a quid pro quo claim, but the issue of real concern to the parties is whether Burlington has vicarious liability, rather than liability limited to its own negligence. This Court nonetheless believes the two terms are of limited utility. To the extent they illustrate the distinction between cases involving a carried-out threat and offensive conduct in general, they are relevant when there is a threshold question whether a plaintiff can prove discrimination. Hence, Ellerth's claim involves only unfulfilled threats, so it is a hostile work environment claim requiring a showing of severe or pervasive conduct. This Court accepts the District Court's finding that Ellerth made such a showing. When discrimination is thus proved, the factors discussed below, not the categories quid pro quo and hostile work environment, control on the issue of vicarious liability. Pp. 751-754.
(b) In deciding whether an employer has vicarious liability in a case such as this, the Court turns to agency law principles, for Title VII defines the term "employer" to include "agents." §2000e(b). Given this express direction, the Court concludes a uniform and predictable standard must be established as a matter of federal law. The Court relies on the general common law of agency, rather than on the law of any particular State. Community for Creative Non-Violence v. Reid, 490 U. S. 730, 740. The Restatement (Second) of Agency (hereinafter Restatement) is a useful beginning point, although common-law principles may not be wholly transferable to Title VII. See Meritor, supra, at 72. Pp. 754-755.
(c) A master is subject to liability for the torts of his servants committed while acting in the scope of their employment. Restatement § 219(1). Although such torts generally may be either negligent or intentional, sexual harassment under Title VII presupposes intentional conduct. An intentional tort is within the scope of employment when