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Law School Case Brief

Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Servs. - 523 U.S. 75, 118 S. Ct. 998 (1998)


Title VII does not reach genuine but innocuous differences in the ways men and women routinely interact with members of the same sex and of the opposite sex. The prohibition of harassment on the basis of sex requires neither asexuality nor androgyny in the workplace; it forbids only behavior so objectively offensive as to alter the "conditions" of the victim's employment. Conduct that is not severe or pervasive enough to create an objectively hostile or abusive work environment, an environment that a reasonable person would find hostile or abusive, is beyond Title VII's purview. 


Petitioner Oncale, employed as a roustabout on an eight-man oil platform crew, alleged that on several occasions, he had been forcibly subjected to humiliating sex-related actions against him by some male coworkers in the presence of the rest of the crew. He further alleged that a male co-worker had physically assaulted him in a sexual manner and had threatened him with rape and after his complaints to supervisory personnel had produced no remedial action, he had quit his job in the belief that otherwise he would have been raped or forced to have sex. Thereafter, petitioner Oncale filed a complaint against his former employer, respondent Sundowner Offshore Services, Inc., claiming that sexual harassment directed against him by respondent co-workers in their workplace constituted discrimination because of sex prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1). Relying on Fifth Circuit precedent, the District Court held that Oncale, a male, had no Title VII cause of action for harassment by male co-workers. The Fifth Circuit affirmed.


Following the alleged sexual discrimination consisting of sexual harassment by his male co-workers, does petitioner Oncale have a cause of action under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964?




The Court held that sex discrimination consisting of same-sex sexual harassment is actionable under Title VII. The Court averred that Title VII's prohibition of discrimination - because of sex - protects men as well as women. The Court posited that nothing in Title VII necessarily barred a claim of discrimination because of sex, merely because the plaintiff and the defendant, or the person charged with acting on behalf of the defendant, were of the same sex. The Court further held that harassing conduct need not be motivated by sexual desire to support an inference of employment discrimination on the basis of sex in violation of Title VII.

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