Evolution of Sexual Harassment Laws

  • Civil Rights Act of 1964 Title VII prohibits employment discrimination based on race, sex, national origin or religion. The prohibition of sex discrimination covers both females and males. But the origin of the law was to protect women in the workplace and that is its main emphasis today. This discrimination occurs when the sex of the worker is made as a condition of employment (i.e. all male waiters or carpenters) or where this is a job requirement that does not mention sex but ends up barring many more persons of one sex than the other from the job (such as height and weight limits)
  • In 1980, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued regulations defining sexual harassment and stating it was a form of sex discrimination prohibited by the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
  • Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits sex discrimination in schools that receive federal funding. Under regulations issued in 1997 by the U.S. Department of Education, which administers Title IX, school districts should be held responsible for harassment by educators if the harasser “was aided in carrying out the sexual harassment of students by his or her position of authority with the institution,” such as authority to assign grades or require students to stay after class.
  • In 1986, the Supreme Court first ruled that sexual harassment can be sex discrimination prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In the case of Michelle Vinson V. Merit one Savings Bank, the court ruled that speech or conduct in itself can create a “hostile environment” and that such an environment violates the Civil Rights Act. According to the justices, unwelcome verbal or physical behavior, if “severe or pervasive” enough, is discriminatory even when there is no quid pro quo.
  • Civil Rights Act of 1991 added provisions to Title VII protections including expanding the rights of women to sue and collect compensatory (punitive) damages for sexual discrimination or harassment. Under existing sexual harassment laws, plaintiffs could only collect back pay and attorneys fees. Arguably, the most significant provision of the act was to grant sexual harassment plaintiffs the right to jury trials. INTERESTING NOTE: This act was passed after the public consciousness of sexual harassment issues were raised by the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill congressional hearings.
  • The violence Against Women Act of 1994 severely restricts the admissibility of evidence of the past sexual history of plaintiffs in sexual harassment suits, while specifically permitting such evidence against harassers accused of assault.