Faragher v. Boca Raton
Annotate this Case
524 U.S. 775 (1998)
OCTOBER TERM, 1997
FARAGHER v. CITY OF BOCA RATON
CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE ELEVENTH CIRCUIT
No. 97-282. Argued March 25, 1998-Decided June 26,1998
Mter resigning as a lifeguard with respondent City of Boca Raton (City), petitioner Beth Ann Faragher brought an action against the City and her immediate supervisors, Bill Terry and David Silverman, for nominal damages and other relief, alleging, among other things, that the supervisors had created a "sexually hostile atmosphere" at work by repeatedly subjecting Faragher and other female lifeguards to "uninvited and offensive touching," by making lewd remarks, and by speaking of women in offensive terms, and that this conduct constituted discrimination in the "terms, conditions, and privileges" of her employment in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U. S. C. § 2000e-2(a)(1). Following a bench trial, the District Court concluded that the supervisors' conduct was discriminatory harassment sufficiently serious to alter the conditions of Faragher's employment and constitute an abusive working environment. The District Court then held that the City could be held liable for the harassment of its supervisory employees because the harassment was pervasive enough to support an inference that the City had "knowledge, or constructive knowledge," of it; under traditional agency principles Terry and Silverman were acting as the City's agents when they committed the harassing acts; and a third supervisor had knowledge of the harassment and failed to report it to City officials. The Eleventh Circuit, sitting en banc, reversed. Relying on Meritor Savings Bank, FSB v. Vinson, 477 U. S. 57, and on the Restatement (Second) of Agency § 219 (1957) (Restatement), the Court of Appeals held that Terry and Silverman were not acting within the scope of their employment when they engaged in the harassing conduct, that their agency relationship with the City did not facilitate the harassment, that constructive knowledge of it could not be imputed to the City because of its pervasiveness or the supervisor's knowledge, and that the City could not be held liable for negligence in failing to prevent it.
Held: An employer is vicariously liable for actionable discrimination caused by a supervisor, but subject to an affirmative defense looking to the reasonableness of the employer's conduct as well as that of the plaintiff victim. Pp. 786-810.
(a) While the Court has delineated the substantive contours of the hostile environment Title VII forbids, see, e. g., Harris v. Forklift Sys-
tems, Inc., 510 U. S. 17,21-22, its cases have established few definitive rules for determining when an employer will be liable for a discriminatory environment that is otherwise actionably abusive. The Court's only discussion to date of the standards of employer liability came in Meritor, supra, where the Court held that traditional agency principles were relevant for determining employer liability. Although the Court cited the Restatement §§219-237 with general approval, the Court cautioned that common-law agency principles might not be transferable in all their particulars. Pp. 786-792.
(b) Restatement § 219(1) provides that "a master is subject to liability for the torts of his servants committed while acting in the scope of their employment." Although Title VII cases in the Courts of Appeals have typically held, or assumed, that supervisory sexual harassment falls outside the scope of employment because it is motivated solely by individual desires and serves no purpose of the employer, these cases appear to be in tension with others defining the scope of the employment broadly to hold employers vicariously liable for employees' intentional torts, including sexual assaults, that were not done to serve the employer, but were deemed to be characteristic of its activities or a foreseeable consequence of its business. This tension is the result of differing judgments about the desirability of holding an employer liable for his subordinates' wayward behavior. The proper analysis here, then, calls not for a mechanical application of indefinite and malleable factors set forth in the Restatement, but rather an enquiry into whether it is proper to conclude that sexual harassment is one of the normal risks of doing business the employer should bear. An employer can reasonably anticipate the possibility of sexual harassment occurring in the workplace, and this might justify the assignment of the costs of this behavior to the employer rather than to the victim. Two things counsel in favor of the contrary conclusion, however. First, there is no reason to suppose that Congress wished courts to ignore the traditional distinction between acts falling within the scope of employment and acts amounting to what the older law called frolics or detours from the course of employment. Second, the lower courts, by uniformly judging employer liability for co-worker harassment under a negligence standard, have implicitly treated such harassment outside the scope of employment. It is unlikely that such treatment would escape efforts to render them obsolete if the Court held that harassing supervisors necessarily act within the scope of their employment. The rationale for doing so would apply when the behavior was that of coemployees, because the employer generally benefits from the work of common employees as from the work of supervisors. The answer to this argument might be that the scope of supervisory employment may be treated separately because super-
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