Retreat for Advances?

The fight against sexual harassment reaches the Supreme Court

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Mechelle Vinson, 30, says she had sex with her boss 40 or 50 times because he intimidated her. Standing outside the U.S. Supreme Court last week, she said, "My life was threatened. It was my survival, my livelihood." Surrounded by feminist lawyers who had come to offer support, Vinson turned as one of them declared, "I know a hundred women for every woman like you." Replied Vinson: "They can look at me as an example of hope, and they don't have to live in fear."

Vinson's sexual harassment case, the first to reach the Supreme Court, came up for oral arguments last week; a ruling is expected by July. Supported by feminists, members of Congress and some unions, Vinson is attempting to broaden employer liability in sex harassment cases. Says Karen Sauvigne, a New York City feminist: "If the Supreme Court reverses the case, it will be a devastating blow to women's rights. It will turn the tide." Many employers, however, fear that a Vinson victory will make companies liable even in harassment cases where no complaint was filed and where top executives had no knowledge of abusive behavior. Guidelines issued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission clearly hold employers liable, but the courts have not yet reached a consensus on the issue.

In September l974, Vinson went to work as a teller trainee at Capital City Federal Savings & Loan Association (now called Meritor) in Washington. She says that the branch manager, Sidney Taylor, coerced her into a sexual relationship, sometimes having sex with her in the bank vault and in a basement storage area. When she pleaded with Taylor to leave her alone, Vinson says, he threatened her job and her life. She never complained to Capital City, and the bank says she rejected two opportunities to transfer to another branch. Vinson's version is that she asked for a transfer and was turned down.

F. Robert Troll Jr., attorney for the bank, argued before the Supreme Court that Vinson "was not the victim of sexual harassment. The bank could not be held liable without being on some form of notice." Vinson's attorney, Patricia Barry, contended that the bank was responsible. To the skepticism of some Justices, she declared, "Sidney Taylor becomes the bank because he is the supervisor."

The high court can sidestep the issue this time by remanding the case for trial on whether Vinson was forced to work in a "sexually hostile environment." The first harassment cases in the late 1970s focused on quid pro quo claims that employees were asked to provide sex to keep their jobs or get better ones. Recently courts have followed the lead of the EEOC and ruled that an atmosphere of sexual aggression, even without economic injury, constitutes harassment.

Since the EEOC issued guidelines in 1980, grievances have risen from 4,272 in 1981 to more than 6,300 in 1984, and courts have become more sensitive to complaints. Last August, for instance, a judge in Buffalo found a polygraph expert guilty of harassing five women by making unnecessary adjustments of a strap across their breasts, touching their thighs and making lewd comments. The court also found the company liable, even though the expert was an outside contractor, because it knew of his actions and did nothing about them. The decision is being appealed.

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