Supreme Court to hear same-sex harassment case
December 3, 1997
Web posted at: 10:35 a.m. EST (1535 GMT)
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear
arguments Wednesday in a case alleging that an oil rig worker
was harassed by his supervisors, all of whom were men.
The case comes a decade after the Supreme Court ruled that
on-the-job sexual harassment is illegal. Now, the court must
decide whether the federal law against such conduct applies
when both the harasser and the victim are the same sex.
The plaintiff, Joseph "Jody" Oncale, was hired as a
roustabout on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 1991.
Oncale, then 21, earned $7 an hour, working 12-hour-a-day
shifts. His attorney, Nick Canady, says the harassment began
"He has filed complaints with the EEOC outlining how
coworkers, including supervisory personnel, grabbed him, held
him, removed their penises from their trousers and threatened
to have sex with him," Canady said.
"He has claimed he was in a shower when these same men got in
the shower stall with him, pinned him in the shower and
abused him using a bar of soap," Canady added.
According to his lawsuit, Oncale quit when his employer,
Sundowner Offshore Services, ignored his two formal
complaints. The suit said Oncale feared the harassment would
escalate to rape.
Claiming sexual harassment, Oncale filed suit against
Sundowner under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which
bars discrimination based on sex. The court's 1986 "Meritor"
case expanded the ruling to include a "hostile environment"
created by sexual harassment.
Sundowner declined comment on the case. The three men named
in Oncale's suit, supervisors John Lyons and Danny Pippen and
co-worker Brandon Johnson, say no harassment occurred.
Lower courts in Louisiana threw the case out, saying the law
does not cover same-sex harassment.
Several civil rights organizations hope the Supreme Court
will decide differently. The court will hold its initial,
secret vote later this week. Its decision is expected by
"We hope that it's an opportunity for them to reaffirm the
many different forms that sexual harassment takes," said
Julie Goldscheid of the National Organization of Women's
Legal Defense Fund.
The fund is one of a dozen civil rights organizations filing
in support of Oncale. Others include the ACLU, the Gay and
Lesbian Advocates (GLAD), the Lambda Legal Defense Fund --
another gay rights group -- and the National Women's Law
Canady said that Oncale, a married father of two, is not gay.
Nonetheless, gay rights groups are concerned about the case.
Some lower courts have ruled that sexual orientation is a
factor in considering whether same-sex harassment is covered
by the law.
Other courts, said Beatrice Dohrn of the Lambda Legal Defense
Fund, have suggested that homosexual victims of harassment
are not protected because the discrimination is based on
sexual orientation, not gender.
"For those courts, the gay issue taints everything and
removes protections for us that the law affords all others,"
But the Equal Employment Advisory Council, a nationwide
association of employers, contends the law is being stretched
beyond what Congress intended.
Courts generally presume that sexual conduct involving a male
perpetrator and a female victim or vice versa is based on the
victim's sex, the group told the justices in a
"But where perpetrator and victim are heterosexuals of the
same gender, as in this case, no such inference properly can
be drawn," the council argued. "A contrary rule effectively
would convert Title VII from a focused mandate to end
discrimination into an unmanageably broad code of working
The case is Oncale vs. Sundowner Offshore Service, 96-568.
Correspondent Charles Bierbauer contributed to this report.