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  • Cited by 2
  • Print publication year: 2016
  • Online publication date: August 2016

16 - Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, 477 U.S. 57 (1986)

from Part II - The feminist judgments



Meritor v. Vinson marks the first time the U.S. Supreme Court recognized hostile work environment sexual harassment as a violation of Title VII. It held that sexual harassment is not limited to quid pro quo harassment, where a woman is fired or financially punished for refusing a supervisor's sexual demands. Sexual harassment that is severe or pervasive enough to alter the conditions of employment and create an abusive working environment also violates Title VII. Although feminists welcomed Meritor's recognition of quid pro quo and hostile environment sexual harassment, the decision written by Justice Rehnquist has proved problematic for plaintiffs. Professor Angela Onwuachi-Willig, writing as Justice Onwuachi-Willig, rectifies many of these problems in her feminist judgment.

First, she brings race and its historical intersection with gender and rape to the fore. Rehnquist does not acknowledge that the complainant and her alleged harasser were African-American nor how that might have shaped Mechelle Vinson's working environment or the responses of the various courts that addressed her case. Second, Onwuachi-Willig holds that sexual harassment is actionable if it unreasonably interferes with the work environment, creates a hostile or intimidating environment, or preserves sex segregation in the workplace. This is a significant departure from the majority rule, which required the harassment to be “severe or pervasive” and “unwelcome,” thus creating an “abusive working environment.” Although some lower courts later adopted a reasonable person standard for evaluating harassment claims, Onwuachi-Willig holds they are to be evaluated from the perspective of a reasonable victim in the complainant's shoes (here, an African-American woman) because the traditional standard can perpetuate dominant or white male norms about appropriate behavior in the workplace. Third, Justice Onwuachi-Willig holds that a complainant's manner of dress is not relevant, shifting the focus from the complainant's “voluntary” participation in the alleged harassment to the defendant's conduct and the impact of that conduct on the working environment. Finally, in a bold move, Onwuachi-Willig holds employers strictly liable for hostile environment harassment of subordinate employees even without any form of notice.


In the original majority decision, the Court addressed three main issues. First, it held that quid pro quo and hostile environment sexual harassment violate Title VII.