111 F.3d 1530, reversed and remanded.
[ ]
HTML version
PDF version
HTML version
PDF version


NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued.
The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader.
See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U.S. 321, 337.




No. 97—282. Argued March 25, 1998–Decided June 26, 1998

After resigning as a lifeguard with respondent City of Boca Raton (City), petitioner Beth Ann Faragher brought an action against the City and her immediate supervisors, Bill Terry and David Silverman, for nominal damages and other relief, alleging, among other things, that the supervisors had created a “sexually hostile atmosphere” at work by repeatedly subjecting Faragher and other female lifeguards to “uninvited and offensive touching,” by making lewd remarks, and by speaking of women in offensive terms, and that this conduct constituted discrimination in the “terms, conditions, and privileges” of her employment in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e—2(a)(1). Following a bench trial, the District Court concluded that the supervisors’ conduct was discriminatory harassment sufficiently serious to alter the conditions of Faragher’s employment and constitute an abusive working environment. The District Court then held that the City could be held liable for the harassment of its supervisory employees because the harassment was pervasive enough to support an inference that the City had “knowledge, or constructive knowledge” of it; under traditional agency principles Terry and Silverman were acting as the City’s agents when they committed the harassing acts; and a third supervisor had knowledge of the harassment and failed to report it to City officials. The Eleventh Circuit, sitting en banc, reversed. Relying on Meritor Savings Bank, FSB v. Vinson, 477 U.S. 57, and on the Restatement (Second) of Agency §219 (1957) (Restatement), the Court of Appeals held that Terry and Silverman were not acting within the scope of their employment when they engaged in the harassing conduct, that their agency relationship with the City did not facilitate the harassment, that constructive knowledge of it could not be imputed to the City because of its pervasiveness or the supervisor’s knowledge, and that the City could not be held liable for negligence in failing to prevent it.

Held: An employer is vicariously liable for actionable discrimination caused by a supervisor, but subject to an affirmative defense looking to the reasonableness of the employer’s conduct as well as that of the plaintiff victim. Pp. 7—32.

(a) While the Court has delineated the substantive contours of the hostile environment Title VII forbids, see, e.g., Harris v. Forklift Systems, Inc., 510 U.S. 17, 21—22, its cases have established few definitive rules for determining when an employer will be liable for a discriminatory environment that is otherwise actionably abusive. The Court’s only discussion to date of the standards of employer liability came in Meritor, supra, where the Court held that traditional agency principles were relevant for determining employer liability. Although the Court cited the Restatement §§219—237 with general approval, the Court cautioned that common-law agency principles might not be transferable in all their particulars. Pp. 7—14.

(b) Restatement §219(1) provides that “a master is subject to liability for the torts of his servants committed while acting in the scope of their employment.” Although Title VII cases in the Court of Appeals have typically held, or assumed, that supervisory sexual harassment falls outside the scope of employment because it is motivated solely by individual desires and serves no purpose of the employer, these cases appear to be in tension with others defining the scope of the employment broadly to hold employers vicariously liable for employees’ intentional torts, including sexual assaults, that were not done to serve the employer, but were deemed to be characteristic of its activities or a foreseeable consequence of its business. This tension is the result of differing judgments about the desirability of holding an employer liable for his subordinates’ wayward behavior. The proper analysis here, then, calls not for a mechanical application of indefinite and malleable factors set forth in the Restatement, but rather an enquiry into whether it is proper to conclude that sexual harassment is one of the normal risks of doing business the employer should bear. An employer can reasonably anticipate the possibility of sexual harassment occurring in the workplace, and this might justify the assignment of the costs of this behavior to the employer rather than to the victim. Two things counsel in favor of the contrary conclusion, however. First, there is no reason to suppose that Congress wished courts to ignore the traditional distinction between acts falling within the scope of employment and acts amounting to what the older law called frolics or detours from the course of employment. Second, the lower courts, by uniformly judging employer liability for co-worker harassment under a negligence standard, have implicitly treated such harassment outside the scope of employment. It is unlikely that such treatment would escape efforts to render them obsolete if the Court held that harassing supervisors necessarily act within the scope of their employment. The rationale for doing so would apply when the behavior was that of co-employees, because the employer generally benefits from the work of common employees as from the work of supervisors. The answer to this argument might be that the scope of supervisory employment may be treated separately because supervisors have special authority enhancing their capacity to harass and the employer can guard against their misbehavior more easily. This answer, however, implicates an entirely separate category of agency law, considered in the next section. Given the virtue of categorical clarity, it is better to reject reliance on misuse of supervisory authority (without more) as irrelevant to the scope-of-employment analysis. Pp. 14—23.

(c) The Court of Appeals erred in rejecting a theory of vicarious liability based on §219(2)(d) of the Restatement, which provides that an employer “is not subject to liability for the torts of his servants acting outside the scope of their employment unless … the servant purported to act or speak on behalf of the principal and there was reliance on apparent authority, or he was aided in accomplishing the tort by the existence of the agency relation.” It makes sense to hold an employer vicariously liable under Title VII for some tortious conduct of a supervisor made possible by use of his supervisory authority, and the aided-by-agency-relation principle of §219(2)(d) provides an appropriate starting point for determining liability for the kind of harassment presented here. In a sense a supervisor is always assisted in his misconduct by the supervisory relationship; however, the imposition of liability based on the misuse of supervisory authority must be squared with Meritor’s holding that an employer is not “automatically” liable for harassment by a supervisor who creates who creates the requisite degree of discrimination. There are two basic alternatives to counter the risk of automatic liability. The first is to require proof of some affirmative invocation of that authority by the harassing supervisor; the second is to recognize an affirmative defense to liability in some circumstances, even when a supervisor has created the actionable environment. The problem with the first alternative is that there is not a clear line between the affirmative and merely implicit uses of supervisory power; such a rule would often lead to close judgment calls and results that appear disparate if not contradictory, and the temptation to litigate would be hard to resist. The second alternative would avoid this particular temptation to litigate and implement Title VII sensibly by giving employers an incentive to prevent and eliminate harassment and by requiring employees to take advantage of the preventive or remedial apparatus of their employers. Thus, the Court adopts the following holding in this case and in Burlington Industries, Inc. v. Ellerth, p. ___, also decided today. An employer is subject to vicarious liability to a victimized employee for an actionable hostile environment created by a supervisor with immediate (or successively higher) authority over the employee. When no tangible employment action is taken, a defending employer may raise an affirmative defense to liability or damages, subject to proof by a preponderance of the evidence. See Fed. Rule Civ. Proc. 8(c). The defense comprises two necessary elements: (a) that the employer exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct promptly any sexually harassing behavior, and (b) that the plaintiff employee unreasonably failed to take advantage of any preventive or corrective opportunities provided by the employer or to avoid harm otherwise. While proof that an employer had promulgated an antiharassment policy with complaint procedure is not necessary in every instance as a matter of law, the need for a stated policy suitable to the employment circumstances may appropriately be addressed in any case when litigating the first element of the defense. And while proof that an employee failed to fulfill the corresponding obligation of reasonable care to avoid harm is not limited to showing an unreasonable failure to use any complaint procedure provided by the employer, a demonstration of such failure will normally suffice to satisfy the employer’s burden under the second element of the defense. No affirmative defense is available, however, when the supervisor’s harassment culminates in a tangible employment action, such as discharge, demotion, or undesirable reassignment. Pp. 23—30.

(d) Under this standard, the Eleventh Circuit’s judgment must be reversed. The District Court found that the degree of hostility in the work environment rose to the actionable level and was attributable to Silverman and Terry, and it is clear that these supervisors were granted virtually unchecked authority over their subordinates and that Faragher and her colleagues were completely isolated from the City’s higher management. While the City would have an opportunity to raise an affirmative defense if there were any serious prospect of its presenting one, it appears from the record that any such avenue is closed. The District Court found that the City had entirely failed to disseminate its sexual harassment policy among the beach employees and that its officials made no attempt to keep track of the conduct of supervisors, and the record makes clear that the City’s policy did not include any harassing supervisors assurance that could be bypassed in registering complaints. Under such circumstances, the Court holds as a matter of law that the City could not be found to have exercised reasonable care to prevent the supervisors’ harassing conduct. Although the record discloses two possible grounds upon which the City might seek to excuse its failure to distribute its policy and to establish a complaint mechanism, both are contradicted by the record. The City points to nothing that might justify a conclusion by the District Court on remand that the City had exercised reasonable care. Nor is there any reason to remand for consideration of Faragher's efforts to mitigate her own damages, since the award to her was solely nominal. Pp. 30—32.

(e) There is no occasion to consider whether the supervisors’ knowledge of the harassment could be imputed to the City. Liability on that theory could not be determined without further factfinding on remand, whereas the reversal necessary on the supervisory harassment theory renders any remand for consideration of imputed knowledge (or of negligence as an alternative to a theory of vicarious liability) entirely unjustifiable. P. 32.

111 F.3d 1530, reversed and remanded.

Souter, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and Stevens, O’Connor, Kennedy, Ginsburg, and Breyer, JJ., joined. Thomas, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Scalia, J., joined.