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Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services Incorporated et al.

Sexual Assault Or Horseplay

Joseph Oncale, at age 21, was hired in August of 1991 as a roustabout by Sundowner Offshore Services in Houma, Louisiana. After a few weeks of working with an eight-man crew on a Chevron USA oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico, he began to be subjected to a series of humiliating and sexually threatening actions by the other men. On one occasion, two supervisors and another coworker physically assailed him in a sexual manner on a small boat between two oil platforms. The assaults continued through the following day accompanied with threats of rape over the next several weeks. At one point, he was sexually accosted in a shower. Oncale complained to company officials, but received no helpful response as Sundowner's workers denied all allegations and no company investigation was initiated. Sundowner, in fact, claimed it was only horseplay. In November, only a few months after being hired, Oncale quit for fear of eventually being raped.

Oncale filed a sex discrimination suit against Sundowner and three of his former coworkers with the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans seeking damages for the humiliating harassment that led to his being run off the job. Citing Garcia, the court dismissed the case asserting that no federal law recognized sexual discrimination by one man against another. He appealed to the federal appeals court which affirmed the district court's decision. The Department of Justice, on behalf of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), urged the Supreme Court to take up the case. The Court issued a writ of certiorari, a written order commanding the lower court to forward the proceedings of the case for review.

Oncale, with assistance from the EEOC, argued before the Court that Title VII's prohibition against sex discrimination and the Court's previous sexual harassment decisions were all stated in gender-neutral terms. Thus, all discrimination based on sex is prohibited, regardless of the genders involved. Writing for the unanimous Court, Justice Scalia noted that in "hostile work environment claims state and federal courts have taken a bewildering variety of stances." When Congress enacted Title VII, male-on-male sexual harassment in the workplace was not considered an issue. In regard to that observation, Sundowner argued that recognizing liability for same-sex sexual harassment would make Title VII more of a general civility code for the workplace rather than discrimination code for which it was intended. Scalia rejected the argument noting that the risk was no greater for same-sex sexual harassment than for opposite-sex sexual harassment.

Scalia wrote that sexual harassment in the work place clearly violated Title VII if it constituted quid pro quo harassment regardless of gender. If a supervisor conditions job benefits, either explicitly or implicitly, or an employee participates in sexual activity, it is "quid pro quo." Scalia reversed the two lower court decisions that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not apply to same-sex sexual harassment.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1995 to PresentOncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services Incorporated et al. - Significance, Same-sex Sexual Harassment, Sexual Assault Or Horseplay, Impact, Further Readings