In a ruling that will affect workplaces nationwide, the US Supreme Court said yesterday that federal sexual-harassment laws apply even when the offense involves people of the same sex.
The unanimous ruling in effect extends for the first time such federal protection to victims of homosexual harassment.
In writing for the court, Justice Antonin Scalia also repeatedly made clear that the high court finds it a violation of federal law for men or women to harass one another on the job even if they are not homosexual. The offense need only be motivated by behavior that is sexual in nature.
The ruling in Oncale v. Sandowner is one of the more significant in a fairly low-key docket for the high court this term.
The case dealt with the plight of Joseph Oncale, a roustabout on a Texas oil rig who was repeatedly harassed by his co-workers in a lewd and sexually explicit manner. Neither Mr. Oncale nor his alleged tormentors is homosexual.
"We see no justification ... for a categorical rule excluding same-sex harassment claims from the coverage of Title VII," Justice Scalia stated. Under Title VII civil rights laws, an employer cannot discriminate against workers on the basis of gender, and that discrimination includes unwanted verbal or physical conduct.
Yet the ruling does not go so far as to make any type of gesture or ill-mannered behavior a federal crime - to the relief of American business groups. It suggests that raucous or macho behavior, for example, is acceptable so long as it does not contain primarily sexual conduct or content.
"The prohibition of harassment on the basis of sex ... forbids only behavior so objectively offensive as to alter the conditions of the victim's employment.... Conduct that is not severe or pervasive enough to create an objectively hostile or abusive work environment - an environment that a reasonable person would find hostile or abusive - is beyond Title VII's purview," Scalia wrote.
The offenses against Oncale, who is married, allegedly took place over a four-month period in 1991. His suit claims that fellow workers and a supervisor pinned him down, touched him sexually, and threatened to rape him. Mr. Oncale says he was unable to sleep and eventually quit.
Lawyers for the three attackers have stated repeatedly that the men were only engaging in horseplay and hazing that was not mainly sexual.
SOME 50 lower federal courts have ruled on same-sex harassment in recent years - a category of offense that did not exist a decade ago. According to Equal Employment Opportunity Commission statistics, complaints by men accounted for about 11 percent of all sexual-harassment claims last year - and an unknown portion of these include same-sex cases.
The US Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers Texas, is the only district court that does not recognize same-sex harassment as a legitimate civil rights claim. That is the circuit where Oncale brought his suit.
"The ruling is not a landmark in one sense simply because the Supreme Court agreed with what every other federal district other than the Fifth Circuit has said," says Mark Tushnet, a law professor at Georgetown University in Washington.
Sexual-harassment suits are becoming a costly workplace issue. The total number of cases has doubled in 1991. Last year a Cleveland-based company paid a record $1.3 million to settle a suit filed by 17 women workers.