Date of Award


Document Type

Honors Thesis (Colby Access Only)


Colby College. Government Dept.




The problems with sexual harassment are deeper than just the negative effects on the victims. Both of the scenarios are taken from the facts of the cases of Burlington industries v. Ellerth and Faragher v. City of Boca Raton, Florida, two of the cases decided by the Supreme Court in 1998. In both of these cases, it is obvious that the actions of the supervisors were both deplorable and wrong. But, what has remained uncertain is the extent to which an employer should be responsible for the sexual harassment perpetrated by a supervisor, and the role of the Court's involvement in developing an answer to this dilemma. With the Court's acceptance of sexual harassment as a legal cause of action in 1986, two distinct categories of sexual harassment have developed. First, quid pro quo sexual harassment claims are those instances in which, " employer conditions tangible employment benefits on an employee's submission to sexual demands.' In this type of sexual harassment, an employer is held to be strictly liable, or liable without fault for the supervisor's actions. However, the application of liability is neither as clear nor as established in the case of hostile environment claims. This category of sexual harassment occurs, " ...when the actions of a supervisor...have the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an employee's work performance or create an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment." The distinctions between these two claims and their respective standards of liability have created confusion and the problems with sexual harassment law among the lower courts and in the workplace. Since the beginnings of sexual harassment law, the question of employer liability has continued to plague the law with uncertainty and ambiguity. The Court took on this question in June of 1998. But, beneath the answer to this question of liability lie ideas of workplace equality and notions of what an ideal workplace should look like. Thus, in instituting a solution to the confusion and answering the questions of employer liability, the Court is necessarily instituting its own vision of equality. Reaching toward a panacea, the Court, with Burlington and Faragher, has attempted to untangle some of the "knots" of sexual harassment law and ease some of the confusion. This attempt has been the institution of a new and uniform standard of employer liability in sexual harassment law. Because the problems of sexual harassment have been so troublesome, and because the Court, in the June cases, has undertaken to resolve to some of these questions, this paper will investigate the decisions reached by the Court in Burlington and Faragher. After detailed examination, it will be shown that, while the Court was right to take these cases, the decisions reached are inappropriate as a matter of substance and inadequate as a matter of policy. In order to evaluate the propriety of the Court's institution of this vision of workplace equality, we must answer three subordinate, but related questions: how did the vision begin; who should author the vision of workplace equality; and finally, what should the vision of the ideal workplace be?


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sexual harassment, Burlington Industries vs Ellerth, Faragher vs City of Boca Raton, Supreme Court