WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court ruled Monday that a supervisor's crude remark fell far short of sexual harassment under federal civil rights laws, and threw out a Nevada school employee's lawsuit.
The court issued an unanimous, unsigned decision in the case of Shirley A. Breeden, who sued the Clark County school district over a 1994 incident with her supervisor and a co-worker. Both are men.
Citing the reasoning in previous Supreme Court cases, the justices wrote that those who believe themselves victims of sexual harassment may sue under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 only if the alleged harassment "is so severe or pervasive as to alter the conditions of the victim's employment and create an abusive working environment."
Breeden was an administrator for the Clark County school district when she attended a meeting to discuss applicants for school police officer positions. Also attending the meeting were her supervisor and one of her subordinates.
A report on one applicant showed that he admitted saying to a co-worker at a previous job, "Making love to you is like making love to the Grand Canyon."
Breeden said her supervisor read the statement out loud, looked at her, shrugged his shoulders and said he didn't know what it meant. Her subordinate said, "Well, I'll tell you later," and both men laughed.
Breeden said she later told her supervisor that she was offended. After that, she said, he treated her harshly, and a month later she was transferred to a job with substantially less supervisory authority.
In 1997, Breeden filed a harassment lawsuit against the school district. Breeden contends that 10 days later she was transferred to a largely clerical job in a trailer several miles from the main office.
A federal judge dismissed her retaliation claim, but the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated it. Although the supervisor's remark would not support a sexual harassment claim, it was reasonable for Breeden to think it was unlawful harassment, the court said.
The Supreme Court reversed that decision, and said the first federal judge was correct to throw out the claim.
"No reasonable person could have believed that the single incident recounted above violated Title VII's standard," the justices wrote, referring to the relevant section of the Civil Rights Act.
The court decided the case without hearing oral arguments or reviewing extensive paperwork from both sides.
The school district had appealed to the high court, arguing that the 9th Circuit's ruling allows employees to file retaliation claims over an "inconsequential act." After Breeden was reassigned, she had the same salary and still had significant administrative responsibilities, the district's lawyers added.
Breeden's lawyers argued that if her reassignments did not count as retaliation, it would send the message to employees, "complain at your own risk."
The case is Clark County School District v. Breeden, 00-866.