Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, Inc.

RESPONDENT: Sundowner Offshore Services, Inc.
LOCATION: Location of the oil rig Oncale worked on

DOCKET NO.: 96-568
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

CITATION: 523 US 75 (1998)
ARGUED: Dec 03, 1997
DECIDED: Mar 04, 1998

Edwin S. Kneedler - On behalf of the United States, as amicus curiae, supporting the petitioner
Harry M. Reasoner - Argued the cause for the respondents
Nicholas Canaday, III - Argued the cause for the petitioner

Facts of the case

Joseph Oncale, a male, filed a complaint against his employer, Sundowner Offshore Services, Inc., alleging that he was sexually harassed by co-workers, in their workplace, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII"). On appeal from a decision supporting a district court's ruling against Oncale, the Supreme Court granted certiorari.


Does the prohibition against sex discrimination, set out in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, apply to same-sex sexual harassment?

Media for Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, Inc.

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - December 03, 1997 in Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, Inc.

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument now in Number 96-568, Joseph Oncale v. Sundowner's Offshore Services, Inc.--

Mr. Canaday.

Nicholas Canaday, III:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

Rejecting Joseph Oncale's title VII claims, the Fifth Circuit stated, same-sex harassment claims are not cognizable under title VII.

The question presented through this appeal is whether the Fifth Circuit's categorical rejection of same-sex claims under title VII is correct.

We argue that it is not.

The court below should be reversed.

Same-sex sexual harassment claims are actionable under title VII.

This case is not about the outer limits or parameters of same-sex sexual harassment as an actionable form of discrimination because of sex, nor is this case about the methods of proof of such a claim.

This case is about whether a same-sex sexual harassment claim exists as a matter of law.

The Fifth Circuit rule that same-sex claims do not exist under title VII is not sex-specific.

It is an absolute rule.

Both sides to this litigation agree that women are entitled to the protections of title VII, but to accept the Fifth Circuit rule is to accept the proposition that a woman's right to work in an environment free of unwelcome sexual conduct, or sexual solicitation, turns on the sex of her harasser.

If the harasser is a female, the woman has no rights or remedies under title VII as interpreted by the Fifth Circuit.

William H. Rehnquist:

I thought this case involved a man.

Nicholas Canaday, III:

It does, Your Honor.

This case does involve a man, but I emphasize that the Fifth Circuit's ruling is not a male-on-male decision, it is a same-sex decision, and I emphasize that to point out the breadth of the Fifth Circuit's categorical and absolute rule that same-gender sexual harassment claims, regardless of the genders, as long as they're identical, and regardless of the underlying facts, would, under the Fifth Circuit's rule, be dismissed as a matter of law, but Your Honor, you're exactly correct, this is a male-on-male situation, but the court did not decide the case on that fact except to recognize that the genders of the two parties, the harasser and the victim, were the same.

So to accept the Fifth Circuit's rule, then, is to agree that the sex of the harasser defines the scope of title VII.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

Not necessarily.

I mean, you could say if the harasser, whoever he or she is, treats members of one sex, whether the same sex as the harasser or the opposite sex, differently, you could... so you... if you have a difference of... in treatment by the perpetrator of males and females, that's one thing.

So I don't think that the Fifth Circuit has ruled quite as broadly as you suggest.

You could have a male perpetrator and a male victim.

Nicholas Canaday, III:

Your Honor, the Fifth Circuit has ruled categorically that if there is a male victim and a male perpetrator they do not look at the underlying facts or circumstances of the harassment.

They decided as a matter of law that same-gender causes of actions do not exist.

The Fifth Circuit's rule would be equally applicable were this a woman-on-woman case.

The fact that it is male-on-male--

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

But my point is, this was an all-male environment, too, and wasn't that... don't we have to take the decision in that context?

In other words, they didn't say that if you have an employer who treats members of one sex one way and members of another sex another way there would still be no claim under title VII if the victim is a male and the perpetrator is a male.

They didn't say that.

There was no other sex involved in this case.