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Law School Case Brief

Clark Cty. Sch. Dist. v. Breeden - 532 U.S. 268, 121 S. Ct. 1508 (2001)

Rule:

Sexual harassment is actionable under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 only if it is so severe or pervasive as to alter the conditions of the victim's employment and create an abusive working environment. Only harassing conduct that is "severe or pervasive" can produce a constructive alteration in the terms or conditions of employment. Title VII forbids only behavior so objectively offensive as to alter the "conditions" of the victim's employment.

Facts:

In Oct. 1994, plaintiff Shirley A. Breeden, an employee of defendant Clark County School District ("District"), was present during a review of job applicants. During the review, her male supervisor read aloud a report that one applicant had once told a co-worker that making love to her was like making love to the Grand Canyon. The supervisor said that he did not understand the remark, and a male employee replied that he would explain later. Both men chuckled. After complaining about the incident to the two males and other District personnel, Breeden filed a complaint against the District with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") in Aug. 1995. On April 1, 1997, Breeden filed a lawsuit against the District in federal district court; the District was served with process on April 11. Meanwhile, on April 10, a District assistant superintendent told a union representative that she was contemplating transferring Breeden. Breeden's complaint alleged that the District violated 42 U.S.C.S. § 2000e-3(a) of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by taking adverse employment actions against her in retaliation for her protected activities in: (1) complaining to District personnel about the Oct. 1994 incident, which she regarded as sexual harassment in violation of Title VII § 2000e-2(a)(1), and; (2) filing the lawsuit against the District. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the District. On appeal, the court of appeals reversed. The District was granted a writ of certiorari.

Issue:

Did Breeden state a cause of action under Title VII?

Answer:

No.

Conclusion:

The Supreme Court of the United States reversed the court of appeals' decision. The Court first ruled that sexual harassment was actionable under Title VII only if the harassment was so severe and pervasive as to alter the conditions of employment. The Court then rules that even if it were assumed that the court of appeals properly interpreted § 2000e-3(a) as protecting employees' opposition to practices that they reasonably believed to be unlawful under Title VII, no reasonable person could have believed that the isolated incident of Oct. 1994 violated Title VII. Furthermore, the Court ruled, there was no showing of causality between the lawsuit and Breeden's transfer in that: (1) there was no indication that the assistant superintendent had been aware of the right-to-sue letter when she proposed the transfer, and; (b) any presumption that she had known would require a presumption that she—or a predecessor­—had also known about the filing of the EEOC complaint 20 months earlier.

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