Harris v. Forklift Systems

When do abusive comments in the workplace constitute sexual harassment? This was the question that the U.S. Supreme Court confronted in Harris v. Forklift Systems (1993). In Harris, the Supreme Court decided that plaintiffs in Title VII workplace harassment suits need not prove psychological injury. On the other hand, the Court acknowledged that merely offensive jokes or comments are unlikely to be grounds for sexual harassment suits.

The Court’s ruling in Harris, even though it arose in the context of a private sector labor dispute, provides guidance about when employers, including school boards, can be liable for violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII makes it an unlawful employment practice to discriminate on the basis of sex, race, religion or natural origin.

Harris began when Teresa Harris, rental manager for the Forklift Systems Equipment Company, charged Charles Hardy, the company president, with creating a sexually hostile work environment. Specifically, Harris alleged that Hardy’s abusive, vulgar, and offensive sexual comments constituted sexual discrimination that violated Title VII. The Supreme Court agreed.

Writing on behalf of the Court, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor noted that the Title VII prohibition against workplace discrimination is not limited to economic discrimination, but includes discriminatory ridicule or insult that creates a hostile work environment. According to the Court, hostile environment violations require both an objective and subjective dimension. First, Justice O’Connor explained, the conduct must be severe or pervasive enough to create an objectively hostile or abusive work environment. Second, Justice O’Connor pointed out that a victim must subjectively perceive the environment to be abusive.

Insofar as Harris does not provide a mathematically precise test, it is unclear exactly how school officials or juries can evaluate whether an environment is hostile or abusive enough to violate Title VII. The answer Justice O’Connor specified is that they must look at all the circumstances. As part of her analysis, she suggested four circumstances to look at in addition to psychological harm: (1) the frequency of the conduct, (2) its severity, (3) whether it was physically threatening or was merely an offensive comment, and (4) whether it unreasonably interfered with an employee’s work performance.

The judgment stands for the proposition that unusually sensitive women or men cannot win such suits simply by proving that certain comments caused them to feel that the environment was hostile and abusive. While Justice O’Connor’s rationale on behalf of the Court pointed out that a subjective feeling that the workplace is hostile is necessary but not sufficient, plaintiffs also must prove that “reasonable persons” would find the environment “objectively” abusive. Finally, Harris instructs judges and juries to consider all the circumstances in determining whether the conduct is severe and pervasive enough to create a hostile work environment in violation of Title VII.

David Schimmel

See also Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education; Franklin v. Gwinnett County Public Schools; Gebser v. Lago Vista Independent School Board; Hostile Work Environment; Sexual Harassment

Legal Citations