2 minute read

Inc. Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services: 1998

Court Rules Same-sex Harassment Illegal

Appellant: Joseph Oncale
Defendant: Sundowner Offshore Services, Inc.
Appellant's Claim: Sexual harassment
Chief Defense Lawyer: Harry M. Reasoner
Chief Lawyers for Appellant: Nicholas Canaday Ill, Edwin S. Kneedler, and U.S. Department of Justice (amicus curiae)
Justices: Stephen G. Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Anthony M. Kennedy, Sandra Day O'Connor, William H. Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia, David H. Souter, John Paul Stevens, and Clarence Thomas
Place: Washington, D.C.
Date of Decision: March 4, 1998
Decision: Reversal of the lower federal courts, holding that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited same-sex sexual harassment.

SIGNIFICANCE: The Oncale case applied the concept of sexual discrimination to include the idea of same-gender sexual harassment.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was designed mainly to prevent discrimination based on race. During congressional debate on the measure, a Southern representative, trying to prevent its passage, added a clause at the 11th hour to include a prohibition on discrimination "because of… sex." This representative was sure that sex-based discrimination would be too controversial for Congress to consider. However, to his disappointment, the law was enacted anyway.

In the 1960s women comprised only a small fraction of the workforce. However, they soon began to use the act to fight discrimination in the workplace including harassment from coworkers and supervisors, "quid pro quo" sexual discrimination, and demands for sex in exchange for promotion or job security. Eventually the courts also dealt with the issues involved with male workers being sexually harassed by female coworkers and supervisors. By the early 1990s, sexual harassment was beginning to take a different form.

In 1991, 21-year-old Joseph Oncale took a job as a deckhand on a Louisiana off-shore oil rig. No women worked on the rig and Oncale was part of an eight-man crew. Before long, he later claimed, some of the men began making sexual threats and crude sexual advances that stopped short of rape, but which Oncale found frightening and humiliating. After an alleged assault that took place in the shower, Oncale finally quit. He later said that he feared that if he did not leave his job "I would be forced to have sex… if I didn't get off the rig… I would be sexually violated."

If Oncale had been a woman—or if his alleged tormentors had been female—he would have had a strong case for harassment under the Civil Rights Act. But in 1995, the federal District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana dismissed his case, finding that Congress had never intended the act to bar same-sex sexual discrimination. Oncale took his case before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which affirmed the district court, and then finally before the U.S. Supreme in 1997. Up to then, federal courts throughout the country had handled the issue of "male-on-male" sexual harassment in different ways, and the Supreme Court was now apparently ready to end the confusion.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1995 to Present