Law School Case Brief
Pa. State Police v. Suders - 542 U.S. 129, 124 S. Ct. 2342 (2004)
To establish hostile work environment, a plaintiff must show harassing behavior sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of their employment. Beyond that, to establish constructive discharge, the plaintiff must make a further showing: She must show that the abusive working environment became so intolerable that her resignation qualified as a fitting response. An employer may defend against such a claim by showing both (1) that it had installed a readily accessible and effective policy for reporting and resolving complaints of sexual harassment, and (2) that the plaintiff unreasonably failed to avail herself of that employer-provided preventive or remedial apparatus. This affirmative defense will not be available to the employer, however, if the plaintiff quits in reasonable response to an employer-sanctioned adverse action officially changing her employment status or situation, for example, a humiliating demotion, extreme cut in pay, or transfer to a position in which she would face unbearable working conditions.
In March 1998, defendant Pennsylvania State Police (PSP) hired plaintiff Nancy Drew Suders to work as a police communications operator for the McConnellsburg barracks, where, she alleged, her male supervisors subjected her to a continuous barrage of sexual harassment. In June 1998, Suders told the PSP's Equal Employment Opportunity Officer, Virginia Smith-Elliott, that she might need help, but neither woman followed up on the conversation. Two months later, Suders contacted Smith-Elliott again, this time reporting that she was being harassed and was afraid. Smith-Elliott told Suders to file a complaint, but did not tell her how to obtain the necessary form. Two days later, Suders' supervisors arrested her for theft of her own computer-skills exam papers. Suders had removed the papers after concluding that the supervisors had falsely reported that she had repeatedly failed, when in fact, the exams were never forwarded for grading. Suders then resigned from the force and filed a lawsuit against PSP in federal district court. Suders alleged, inter alia, that she had been subjected to sexual harassment and constructively discharged, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The district court granted the PSP's motion for summary judgment, finding that although Suders' testimony would permit a trier of fact to conclude that her supervisors had created a hostile work environment, PSP was not vicariously liable for the supervisors' conduct under the affirmative defense established by the Ellerth and Faragher decisions. Suders appealed, and the appellate court reversed and remanded the matter for disposition on the merits as to the Title VII claim. PSP was granted a writ of certiorari.
Was PSP entitled to summary judgment on Suders' claim of sexually hostile work environment under Title VII?
The Supreme Court of the United States vacated the appellate court's judgment and remanded the case for further proceedings. The Court ruled that in cases involving Title VII claims such as Suders' claims, an employer, such as PSP, could raise the affirmative defense established by Ellerth and Faragher by showing that: (a) the employer had installed a readily accessible and effective policy for reporting and resolving complaints of sexual harassment, and (b) the plaintiff unreasonably failed to make use of such a preventive or remedial apparatus. The Court further ruled that the affirmative defense was available to the employer only where a supervisor's official act (i.e., tangible employment action) did not underlie the constructive discharge. The defense was not available, the Court continued, if the plaintiff quit in reasonable response to an employer-sanctioned adverse action that officially changed the plaintiff's employment status or situation. The Court ruled that, in Suders' case, although the appellate court correctly held that the case presented genuine issues of material fact concerning the hostile-work-environment and constructive-discharge claims, the appellate court erred in declaring that the affirmative defense was never available in constructive-discharge cases.
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