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Harris v. Forklift

Discrimination By Any Other Name

The Supreme Court's first female justice, Justice O'Connor, wrote the final decision, delivering the six-page ruling on 9 November 1993. She concluded that a workplace environment that "would reasonably be perceived, and is perceived, as hostile or abusive" because of sexual harassment is an arena where sex discrimination has occurred. The decision overturned lower federal court rulings that made proof of "severely psychological injury" a critical factor.

Citing the "broad rule of workplace equality" and federal laws against job discrimination, the Court stated that no single factor, such as psychological distress, is an essential element. O'Connor wrote that the definition of sexual harassment "by its nature cannot be a mathematically precise test." Rather, courts should look at "all the circumstances" to determine whether a work environment is a hostile one. These circumstances may be "the frequency of the discriminatory conduct; its severity; whether it is physically threatening or humiliating, or a mere offensive utterance; and whether it unreasonably interferes with an employee's work performance."

Justice Ginsburg's brief was her first since joining the Court in October of 1993. According to the New York Times, Ginsburg "went out of her way to suggest that discrimination on the basis of sex should be taken as seriously by the Court as discrimination on the basis of race." Ginsburg also cited a 1982 decision of O'Connor's (Mississippi University for Women v. Hogan) that declared it unconstitutional for a Mississippi state college to exclude men from a nursing program.

The Harris decision reaffirmed the standard set by Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, which ruled that an employer violates Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act when the workplace becomes an arena for discriminatory behavior, creating an unfairly hostile or abusive atmosphere.

The Supreme Court instructed the appeals court to rehear the case and assess damages. However, before the lower court could reach its decision, Harris settled out of court with her former employer. The terms of the settlement were never disclosed. Harris is now an oncology nurse at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1989 to 1994Harris v. Forklift - Significance, Harris Files A Lawsuit, Discrimination By Any Other Name, Justice Clarence Thomas, Further Readings