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Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services

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Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, 523 U.S. 75 (1998), was a decision of the Supreme Court of the United States. The case arose out of a suit for sex discrimination by a male oil-rig worker, who claimed that he was repeatedly subjected to sexual harassment by his male coworkers with the acquiescence of his employer. The Court held that Title VII's protection against workplace discrimination "because of... sex" applied to harassment in the workplace between members of the same sex.

Facts of the case Edit

In late October 1991, Oncale was working for Sundowner Offshore Services on a Chevron USA Inc. oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico. He was employed as a roustabout on an eight-man crew. On several occasions, Oncale was forcibly subjected to sex-related, humiliating actions against him by his coworkers in the presence of the rest of the crew. Oncale was also sodomized with a bar of soap, and threatened with rape. Oncale's complaints to supervisory personnel produced no remedial action. Instead, the company's Safety Compliance Clerk called him a name suggesting homosexuality. Oncale eventually quit -- asking that his pink slip reflect that he "voluntarily left due to sexual harassment and verbal abuse."

Oncale filed a complaint against Sundowner in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, alleging that he was discriminated against in his employment because of his sex. Relying on earlier precedents, the district court held that "Mr. Oncale, a male, has no cause of action under Title VII for harassment by male co-workers." Oncale appealed, and the Supreme Court reversed the decision.

Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services set the precedent for analyzing same-sex harassment, and sexual harassment without motivation of "sexual desire", stating that any discrimination based on sex is actionable so long at it places the victim in an objectively disadvantageous working condition, regardless of the gender of either the victim, or the harasser.

The application of the Oncale case has caused some difficulty in the lower federal courts, which have struggled with how to determine whether any particular case of same-sex harassment is "because of sex." In particular, courts have struggled with how to deal with harassment that appears to be based on actual or perceived sexual orientation, because employment discrimination based on sexual orientation is not forbidden by U.S. federal law.

Because it set a precedent regarding harassment "because of sex," Oncale v. Sundowner has been lauded as a landmark "gay rights" case, even though all those involved were heterosexual. [1]

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