Sexual Harassment and Title VII: Selected Legal Issues

Source: Christine J. Back, Wilson C. Freeman, Congressional Research Service, CRS Report, R45155, April 9, 2018

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) generally prohibits discrimination in the workplace, but does not contain an express prohibition against harassment. The Supreme Court, however, has interpreted the statute to prohibit certain forms of harassment, including sexual harassment. Since first recognizing the viability of a Title VII harassment claim in a unanimous 1986 decision, the Court has also established legal standards for determining when offensive conduct amounts to a Title VII violation and when employers may be held liable for such actionable harassment, and created an affirmative defense available to employers under certain circumstances.

Given this judicially created paradigm for analyzing sexual harassment under Title VII, this report examines key Supreme Court precedent addressing Title VII sexual harassment claims, the statutory interpretation and rationales reflected in these decisions, and examples of lower federal court decisions applying this precedent. The report also discusses various types of harassment recognized by the Supreme Court—such as “hostile work environment,” quid pro quo, constructive discharge, and same-sex harassment—and explores tensions, disagreements, or apparent inconsistencies among federal courts when analyzing these claims.

Finally, this report examines sexual harassment in the context of retaliation. Does Title VII’s anti-retaliation provision protect an employee from being fired, for example, for reporting sexual harassment? How do federal courts approach the analysis of a Title VII claim alleging that an employer retaliated against an employee by subjecting him or her to harassment? The report discusses Supreme Court and federal appellate court precedent relevant to these questions….