Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson

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Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson
Seal of the United States Supreme Court
Argued March 25, 1986
Decided June 19, 1986
Full case nameMeritor Savings Bank, FSB v. Mechelle Vinson, et al.
Citations477 U.S. 57 (more)
106 S. Ct. 2399; 91 L. Ed. 2d 49
A claim of "hostile environment" sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that is actionable under the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Court membership
Chief Justice
Warren E. Burger
Associate Justices
William J. Brennan Jr. · Byron White
Thurgood Marshall · Harry Blackmun
Lewis F. Powell Jr. · William Rehnquist
John P. Stevens · Sandra Day O'Connor
Case opinions
MajorityRehnquist, joined by Burger, White, Powell, Stevens, O'Connor
ConcurrenceMarshall, joined by Brennan, Blackmun, Stevens
Laws applied
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, 477 U.S. 57 (1986), is a US labor law case, where the United States Supreme Court, in a 9-0 decision, recognized sexual harassment as a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The case was the first of its kind to reach the Supreme Court and would redefine sexual harassment in the workplace.[1][2]

It established the standards for analyzing whether conduct was unlawful and when an employer would be liable. The court, for the first time, made sexual harassment an illegal form of discrimination.[2]


In 1974, at the age of 19, Mechelle Vinson, a black woman,[3] was hired as a teller-trainee at the northeast branch of Capitol City Federal Savings and Loan Association in Washington D.C.[4] Vinson reported that by May of 1975 her supervisor, Sidney L. Taylor, began what would be 3 years of recurring sexual harassment while in the workplace.[4] In November 1978 Vinson was fired from her job at a Meritor Savings Bank which Taylor explained as being due to Vinson's inordinate use of sick leave.[4] The first initiation of Vinson's civil lawsuit against Sidney L. Taylor and Capital City Federal Savings and Loan Association, which would soon change its name to Meritor Savings Bank, came in September of 1978.[4] Vinson charged that Taylor had coerced her to have sexual relations with him and made demands for sexual favors at work. Vinson stated that she had intercourse with Taylor 40 or 50 times.[5] Additionally, she testified that Taylor had touched her in public, exposed himself to her, and forcibly raped her multiple times.

She argued such harassment created a '"hostile working environment'" and a form of unlawful discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Vinson sought injunctive relief along with compensatory and punitive damages against Taylor and the bank.

The primary question presented was whether a hostile work environment constituted a form of unlawful discrimination under the Civil Rights Act of 1964,[6] or if the Act was limited to tangible economic discrimination in the workplace.


The Court held that Title VII was "not limited to 'economic' or 'tangible' discrimination" and found that the intention of Congress was "'to strike at the entire spectrum of disparate treatment of men and women' in employment...."

The Court pointed out that guidelines issued by the EEOC specified that sexual harassment leading to noneconomic injury was a form of sex discrimination prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Court recognized that the plaintiff, Mechelle Vinson, could establish violations of the Act "by proving that discrimination based on sex has created a hostile or abusive work environment."[4] A Plaintiff with hostile environment-styled claims must prove that the challenged conduct was severe or pervasive, created a hostile or abusive working environment, was unwelcome, and was based on the plaintiff’s gender.

Catharine A. MacKinnon, author of Towards a Feminist Theory of the State, was co-counsel for the respondent and wrote the respondent's brief.


The ruling of Mechelle Vinson’s Supreme Court case was the first instance of sexual harassment being recognized by the court as “actionable”.[7] This ruling also qualified the hostile environment which sexual harassment in the workplace creates as sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.[7] Prior to the ruling on Vinson’s case, discrimination under Title VII was constituted as economic loss.[7] This court case articulated that the creation of a hostile work environment is a form of discrimination and that economic loss is not required to be in violation of Title VII.[7] Additionally, this case ruled that the sexual conduct between Taylor and Vinson could not be deemed voluntary due to the hierarchical relationship between supervisor and subordinates in the workplace.[7]

Following the ruling of Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, reported sexual harassment cases grew from 10 cases being registered by the EEOC per year before 1986 to 624 case being reported in the subsequent following year.[4] This number of reported cases rose to 2,217 in 1990 and then 4,626 by 1995.[4]

A review revealed that the determination of what constitutes "severe or pervasive conduct" is invariably based on an examination of the totality of circumstances. Moreover, in gauging the totality of circumstances, lower courts typically focus on some or all of the following four factors:

  1. the level of offensiveness of the unwelcome acts or words;
  2. the frequency or pervasiveness of the offensive encounters;
  3. the total length of time over which the encounters occurred;
  4. the context in which the harassing conduct occurred. See for example Vance v. Southernbell Tel. & Tel. Co., 863 F.2d 1503 (11th Cir. 1989) (after the trial court granted a defense motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, on the ground that a noose hung over a black employee's desk on two different occasions was not enough, as a matter of law, to establish that the alleged racial harassment was a persistent, pervasive practice, the appellate court held that the determination of whether the defendant's conduct was sufficiently "severe and pervasive" did not turn solely on the number of incidents alleged by the plaintiff but was to be based on a consideration of all the circumstances, including the number and severity of individual incidents of harassment).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, 477 U.S. 57 (1986).
  2. ^ a b Brown, DeNeen L. (2017-10-13). "She said her boss raped her in a bank vault. Her sexual harassment case would make legal history". Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved 2017-10-13.
  3. ^ Onwuachi-Willig, Angela (18 June 2018). "What About #UsToo?: The Invisibility of Race in the #MeToo Movement". Yale Law Journal Forum. 128: 107. Retrieved 10 February 2020.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g 1946-, Cochran, Augustus B. (2004). Sexual harassment and the law : the Mechelle Vinson case. Lawrence, Kan.: University Press of Kansas. ISBN 978-0700613236. OCLC 53284947.CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  5. ^ Geare, A J. (1997). "Sexual harassment: Modern issue--ancient problem". New Zealand Journal of Industrial Relations. 22/23: 241–276. ProQuest 213511841.
  6. ^ "Civil Rights Act of 1964". Archived from the original on 2010-10-21. Retrieved 2008-10-02.
  7. ^ a b c d e Women and the law stories. Schneider, Elizabeth M., Wildman, Stephanie M., 1949-. New York: Foundation Press/Thomson Reuters. 2011. ISBN 978-1599415895. OCLC 671639786.CS1 maint: others (link)


External links[edit]