Case Analysis: Faragher v. City of Boca Raton

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FARAGHER v. CITY OF BOCA RATON

524 U.S. 775

JUSTICE SOUTER delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case calls for identification of the circumstances under which an employer may be held liable under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for the acts of a supervisory employee whose sexual harassment of subordinates has created a hostile work environment amounting to employment discrimination. We hold that an employer is vicariously liable for actionable discrimination caused by a supervisor, but subject to an affirmative defense looking to the reasonableness of the employer’s conduct as well as that of a plaintiff victim.

Between 1985 and 1990, while attending college, petitioner Beth Ann Faragher worked part time and during the summers as an ocean lifeguard for the Marine Safety Section of the Parks and Recreation Department of respondent, the City of Boca Raton, Florida (City). During this period, Faragher’s immediate supervisors were Bill Terry, David Silverman, and Robert Gordon. In June 1990, Faragher resigned. In 1992, Faragher brought an action against Terry, Silverman, and the City, asserting claims under Title VII and Florida law. The complaint alleged that Terry and Silverman created a “sexually hostile atmosphere” at the beach by repeatedly subjecting Faragher and other female lifeguards to “uninvited and offensive touching,” by making lewd remarks, and by speaking of women in offensive terms.

Throughout Faragher’s employment with the City, Terry served as Chief of the Marine Safety Division, with authority to hire new lifeguards (subject to the approval of higher management), to supervise all aspects of the lifeguards’ work assignments, to engage in counseling, to deliver oral reprimands, and to make a record of any such discipline. Silverman and Gordon were responsible for making the lifeguards’ daily assignments, and for supervising their work and fitness training. The lifeguards and supervisors were stationed at the city beach and had no significant contact with higher city officials like the Recreation Superintendent.

In February 1986, the City adopted a sexual harassment policy, which it stated in a memorandum from the City Manager addressed to all employees. In May 1990, the City revised the policy and reissued a statement of it. Although the City may actually have circulated the memos and statements to some employees, it completely failed to disseminate its policy among employees of the Marine Safety Section, with the result that Terry, Silverman, Gordon, and many lifeguards were unaware of it.

Faragher did not complain to higher management about Terry or Silverman. In April 1990, however, two months before Faragher’s resignation, Nancy Ewanchew, a former lifeguard, wrote to Richard Bender, the City’s Personnel Director, complaining that Terry and Silverman had harassed her and other female lifeguards. Following investigation of this complaint, the City found that Terry and Silverman had behaved improperly, reprimanded them, and required them to choose between a suspension without pay or the forfeiture of annual leave.

Since our decision in Meritor , Courts of Appeals have struggled to derive manageable standards to govern employer liability for hostile environment harassment perpetrated by supervisory employees. While indicating the substantive contours of the hostile environments forbidden by Title VII, our cases have established few definite rules for determining when an employer will be liable for a discriminatory environment that is otherwise actionably abusive.

A “master is subject to liability for the torts of his servants committed while acting in the scope of their employment.” Restatement 219(1). This doctrine has traditionally defined the “scope of employment” as including conduct “of the kind [a servant] is employed to perform,” occurring “substantially within the authorized time and space limits,” and “actuated, at least in part, by a purpose to serve the master,” but as excluding an intentional use of force “unexpectable by the master.”

A justification for holding the offensive behavior within the scope of Terry’s and Silverman’s employment was well put in Judge Barkett’s dissent: “[A] pervasively hostile work environment of sexual harassment is never (one would hope) authorized, but the supervisor is clearly charged with maintaining a productive, safe work environment. The supervisor directs and controls the conduct of the employees, and the manner of doing so may inure to the employer’s benefit or detriment, including subjecting the employer to Title VII liability.”

It is by now well recognized that hostile environment sexual harassment by supervisors (and, for that matter, co-employees) is a persistent problem in the workplace. An employer can, in a general sense, reasonably anticipate the possibility of such conduct occurring in its workplace, and one might justify the assignment of the burden of the untoward behavior to the employer as one of the costs of doing business, to be charged to the enterprise rather than the victim. As noted, developments like this occur from time to time in the law of agency.

We agree with Faragher that in implementing Title VII it makes sense to hold an employer vicariously liable for some tortious conduct of a supervisor made possible by abuse of his supervisory authority. The agency relationship affords contact with an employee subjected to a supervisor’s sexual harassment, and the victim may well be reluctant to accept the risks of blowing the whistle on a superior. When a person with supervisory authority discriminates in the terms and conditions of subordinates’ employment, his actions necessarily draw upon his superior position over the people who report to him, or those under them, whereas an employee generally cannot check a supervisor’s abusive conduct the same way that she might deal with abuse from a co-worker. When a fellow employee harasses, the victim can walk away or tell the offender where to go, but it may be difficult to offer such responses to a supervisor, whose “power to supervise-[which may be] to hire and fire, and to set work schedules and pay rates-does not disappear . . . when he chooses to harass through insults and offensive gestures rather than directly with threats of firing or promises of promotion.” Recognition of employer liability when discriminatory misuse of supervisory authority alters the terms and conditions of a victim’s employment is underscored by the fact that the employer has a greater opportunity to guard against misconduct by supervisors than by common workers; employers have greater opportunity and incentive to screen them, train them, and monitor their performance.

In order to accommodate the principle of vicarious liability for harm caused by misuse of supervisory authority, as well as Title VII’s equally basic policies of encouraging forethought by employers and saving action by objecting employees, we adopt the following holding in this case and in Burlington Industries, Inc . v. Ellerth , also decided today. An employer is subject to vicarious liability to a victimized employee for an actionable hostile environment created by a supervisor with immediate (or successively higher) authority over the employee.

When no tangible employment action is taken, a defending employer may raise an affirmative defense to liability or damages, subject to proof by a preponderance of the evidence. The defense comprises two necessary elements: (a) that the employer exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct promptly any sexually harassing behavior, and (b) that the plaintiff employee unreasonably failed to take advantage of any preventive or corrective opportunities provided by the employer or to avoid harm otherwise.

While proof that an employer had promulgated an antiharassment policy with complaint procedure is not necessary in every instance as a matter of law, the need for a stated policy suitable to the employment circumstances may appropriately be addressed in any case when litigating the first element of the defense. And while proof that an employee failed to fulfill the corresponding obligation of reasonable care to avoid harm is not limited to showing an unreasonable failure to use any complaint procedure provided by the employer, a demonstration of such failure will normally suffice to satisfy the employer’s burden under the second element of the defense. No affirmative defense is available, however, when the supervisor’s harassment culminates in a tangible employment action, such as discharge, demotion, or undesirable reassignment.

Applying these rules here, it is undisputed that these supervisors “were granted virtually unchecked authority” over their subordinates, “directly controll[ing] and supervis[ing] all aspects of [Faragher’s] day-to-day activities.” It is also clear that Faragher and her colleagues were “completely isolated from the City’s higher management.”

While the City would have an opportunity to raise an affirmative defense if there were any serious prospect of its presenting one, it appears from the record that any such avenue is closed. The City had entirely failed to disseminate its policy against sexual harassment among the beach employees and that its officials made no attempt to keep track of the conduct of supervisors like Terry and Silverman. The City’s policy did not include any assurance that the harassing supervisors could be bypassed in registering complaints. Under such circumstances, we hold as a matter of law that the City could not be found to have exercised reasonable care to prevent the supervisors’ harassing conduct. Unlike the employer of a small workforce, who might expect that sufficient care to prevent tortious behavior could be exercised informally, those responsible for city operations could not reasonably have thought that precautions against hostile environments in any one of many departments in far-flung locations could be effective without communicating some formal policy against harassment, with a sensible complaint procedure.

The judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit is reversed, and the case is remanded for reinstatement of the judgment of the District Court.

It is so ordered.

Solution Preview
Subjects:
Civil Rights: Sex Discrimination in Employment

Facts of the Case
After resigning as a lifeguard, Beth Ann Faragher brought an action against the City of Boca Raton and her immediate supervisors, alleging that the supervisors had created a sexually hostile atmosphere by touching, remarking, and commenting. Faragher asserted that this conduct constituted discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The District Court concluded that Faragher’s supervisors’ conduct was sufficiently serious to alter the conditions of her employment and constitute an abusive working environment. The court then held that the city could be held liable. In reversing, the en banc Court of Appeals held that Faragher’s supervisors were not acting within the scope of their employment when they engaged in the harassing conduct, that knowledge of the harassment could not be imputed to the City, and that the City could not be held liable for negligence in failing to prevent it. * Beth Ann Faragher worked as a lifeguard for the City of Boca Raton (the City) for five years before resigning in 1990. In 1986, the City adopted a sexual harassment policy, but didn’t inform the employees where Beth Ann worked. Beth Ann was sexually harassed by two of her supervisors at work and complained to her immediate supervisor, but didn’t file any formal complaints while she worked there. In 1990, another female lifeguard did file a formal complaint, and the supervisors were reprimanded. In 1992, Beth Ann brought a Title VII suit against her supervisors and the City for her supervisors’ sexually offensive conduct, alleging violation of 42 U.S.C. 2000e-2(a)(1).

Issue
May an employer be held liable under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for the acts of an employee whose sexual harassment of subordinates has created a hostile work environment amounting to employment discrimination?

Holding
An employer is vicariously liable for actionable discrimination caused by a supervisor, but subject to an affirmative defense looking to the reasonableness of the employer’s conduct as well as that of the plaintiff victim.

When Beth Ann’s complaint went to trial, the District Court found that the supervisors’ behavior was discriminatory harassment sufficiently serious to alter the conditions of her employment and constitute an abusive working environment. The Court further held the City liable for three reasons:

1. The harassment was sufficiently pervasive that the City had or should had knowledge, or constructive knowledge, of it.

2. The supervisors were agents of the City.

3. Beth Ann’s immediate supervisor had knowledge of the harassment.

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision, finding that the supervisors were harassing Beth Ann outside the scope of their employment, that they were not aided in their actions by the agency relationship, and that the City had no constructive knowledge of the harassment by virtue of its pervasiveness or her immediate supervisor’s actual knowledge.

Summary of the Court’s Reasoning

Yes. In a 7-2 opinion delivered by Justice David H. Souter, the Court held that an employer is vicariously liable under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for actionable discrimination caused by a supervisor. The Court also held that such liability is subject to an affirmative defense looking to the reasonableness of the employer’s conduct as well as that of the plaintiff victim. “The City had entirely failed to disseminate its policy against sexual harassment among the beach employees and that its officials made no attempt to keep track of the conduct of supervisors like [Faragher’s],” wrote Justice Souter, “[u]nder such circumstances, we hold as a matter of law that the City could not be found to have exercised reasonable care to prevent the supervisors’ harassing conduct.”

Additional Material if needed:

*Additional analysis for facts:
After resigning as a lifeguard with respondent City of Boca Raton (City), petitioner Beth Ann Faragher brought an action against the City and her immediate supervisors, Bill Terry and David Silverman, for nominal damages and other relief, alleging, among other things, that the supervisors had created a “sexually hostile atmosphere” at work by repeatedly subjecting Faragher and other female …

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