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Supreme Court Decision Provides More Support for Summary Judgment in Title VII Cases

May 1, 2001

In a per curiam decision dated April 23, 2001, the United States Supreme has reaffirmed the proposition that an "isolated incident" of arguably sexual banter cannot give rise to a viable sexual harassment claim under Title VII. The Court also reiterated that mere temporal proximity between protected activity and an adverse employment action generally will not suffice to establish a claim of retaliation under Title VII. Clark County School District v. Breeden, No. 00-866, 2001 WL 402573 (April 23, 2001).

The Court's issuance of its decision per curiam (without the benefit of briefs or oral argument) suggests that there were no difficult legal issues involved in the case.

The Facts of the Case

The plaintiff in the case was a female school district administrator. In 1994, in the course of performing her job duties, the plaintiff was discussing with two male colleagues (one of whom was her supervisor) the psychological evaluations of four job applicants. One of these reports disclosed that the applicant had once said to a co-worker, "I hear making love to you is like making love the Grand Canyon." The supervisor read that comment aloud, looked at the plaintiff and said "I don't know what that means." The male co-worker then said, "Well, I'll tell you later," and the two men chuckled. The plaintiff complained about this incident to the District's Assistant Superintendent.

In August 1995, the plaintiff filed a complaint with the EEOC. After receiving a right-to-sue letter, she filed a lawsuit on April 1, 1997, claiming that the above-described incident constituted unlawful sexual harassment under Title VII. On April 10, 1997, the Assistant Superintendent told others that she was considering transferring the plaintiff to a new position. The transfer took place in May. Plaintiff then added a claim of retaliation to her Complaint, alleging that she had been subjected to unlawful retaliation (the transfer) because she had engaged in protected activity (filing the lawsuit).

The District Court's grant of summary judgment in favor of defendants was reversed on appeal by the Ninth Circuit. The Supreme Court concluded that the District Court was correct in granting summary judgment, and it therefore reversed the Ninth Circuit's decision.

Isolated Incidents Generally Do Not Create a Legally Actionable Hostile Environment

In concluding that the school district was entitled to summary judgment on the plaintiff's claims, the Supreme Court first emphasized that a single offensive comment does not constitute sexual harassment under Title VII. The Court stated it is "plain" from its prior decisions (see, e.g., Faragher v. Boca Raton, 524 U.S. 775 (1998); Burlington Industries, Inc. v. Ellerth, 524 U.S. 742 (1998); Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, Inc., 523 U.S. 75 (1998)), that sexual harassment is actionable under Title VII only if it so severe or pervasive as to alter the conditions of employment and create an abusive working environment.

The Court went on to conclude that "[n]o reasonable person could have believed that the single incident recounted above violated Title VII's standard." Thus, this incident could not be considered "extremely serious," as is required to establish liability under Title VII for sexual harassment. See Faragher, 524 U.S. at 788.

Mere Temporal Proximity is Generally Insufficient to Establish a Viable Claim of Retaliation

Turning to the plaintiff's retaliation claim, the Supreme Court noted that plaintiff's claim that her transfer resulted from the filing of the lawsuit was fatally flawed because that transfer had initially been contemplated by the plaintiff's superiors before they received notice of the lawsuit. Although the plaintiff was not actually transferred until a month after the defendants were served with the complaint, this did not save the plaintiff's retaliation claim. According to the Supreme Court, this

fact is immaterial in light of the fact that [the school district] concededly was contemplating the transfer before it learned of the suit. Employers need not suspend previously planned transfers upon discovering that a Title VII suit has been filed, and their proceeding along lines previously contemplated, though not yet definitively determined, is no evidence whatsoever of causality.

2001 WL 402573, at *3 (emphasis added). The Court noted further that, standing alone, temporal proximity between protected activity and an adverse employment action is sufficient to establish a prima facie case of retaliation only when that temporal proximity is "very close." The Court concluded that "[a]ction taken (as here) 20 months later suggests, by itself, no causality at all." Id.

Concluding Thoughts

The Supreme Court's most recent sexual harassment decision seems to signal its rising frustration with the plethora of meritless harassment claims clogging the federal courts. The language in the decision strongly indicates that summary judgment should be granted routinely when evidence of a hostile environment falls short of the "severe and pervasive" standard established years ago. Similarly, the Court stated unequivocally that mere temporal proximity is generally insufficient to state a claim of retaliation, and that an employer need not forestall planned employment actions in response to a complaint of unlawful discrimination or harassment.