Developments in Harassment Law: Update for 2002-2003

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The Supreme Court observed that Title VII was enacted not only to provide redress for unlawful discrimination, but also to prevent such discrimination. The goal of preventing discrimination would be promoted, the Court held, by imposing on employers strict liability for the conduct of their supervisors under certain circumstances, because, as between employers and employees, the employers are better able to prevent discrimination by such supervisors. Specifically, the Court held that an employer is strictly liable for a supervisor’s sexually harassing behavior whenever the supervisor is the employer’s “alter ego” or the supervisor has taken a “tangible employment action” against the employee; examples of such actions include “hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassignment with significantly different responsibilities, or a decision causing a significant change in benefits.” Ellerth at 761. The Court found that the occurrence of a tangible employment action justified holding an employer liable for its supervisor’s harassment because the action could not have been taken absent the agency relation.