In 1978, Mechelle Vinson filed a lawsuit against her supervisor that redefined sexual harassment in the workplace.
Vinson had worked at the Capital City Federal Savings Bank in Washington for four years before being fired. During that time, she claimed that the branch manager, Sidney L. Taylor, repeatedly sexually assaulted her — once forcing her to the floor in the bank vault. Taylor threatened to fire her if she refused his demands, she said.
She was fired from her job when she filed her lawsuit, and the case, Meritor Savings Bank vs. Vinson, was the first of its kind to reach the Supreme Court.
Taylor, a church deacon and a married man with seven children, denied the allegations. But Vinson estimated that she “had intercourse with him some 40 or 50 times,” according to court documents.
The harassment, the lawsuit said, began in 1974. A few months after she began working as a 19-year-old teller trainee at the small bank, the manager asked her out to dinner at a Chinese restaurant. The restaurant was connected to a motel, and after dinner the manager demanded she have sex in exchange for keeping her job.
She told him she appreciated his help in hiring her for the job, according to court records.
When she refused, he threatened her.
“I said, ‘I don’t want to go to bed with you,’ ” Vinson told The Washington Post in a 1986 interview. “And he says, ‘Just like I hired you, I’ll fire you. Just like I made you, I’ll break you, and if you don’t do what I say then I’ll have you killed.’ … And that’s how it started.”
Vinson, who’d risen to assistant branch manager, took an indefinite sick leave from her job.
In 1978, she was fired and filed suit against Taylor and the bank, which was later acquired by Meritor Savings.
Her attorney, John Marshall Meisburg Jr., who filed Vinson’s first lawsuit, described it as an “allegation of sexual slavery.”
A U.S. District judge ruled against Vinson. The judge said that employers in sex harassment cases, unlike other discrimination cases, could be held liable only if they had been notified of the harassment and did nothing about it.
A U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit reversed that decision, and the bank appealed the case to the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court ruled unanimously that sexual harassment violated federal laws against discrimination and that companies could be held liable for sexual harassment committed by supervisors — even if the company was unaware of the harassment.
“Without question,” Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote, “when a supervisor sexually harasses a subordinate because of the subordinate’s sex, the supervisor discriminates on the basis of sex.”
The ruling was hailed by women’s groups. It “states definitively, for the first time, that sex harassment is discrimination and that it is definitely illegal,” said Eleanor Smeal, president of the National Organization for Women.
The impact on the American workplace was enormous, wrote Augustus B. Cochran III in his book “Sexual Harassment and the Law: The Mechelle Vinson Case.” Cochran said “the Supreme Court’s opinion, authored by one of the most conservative justices, brought the problem of sexual harassment into the spotlight and placed power relations between men and women at work squarely on the public agenda.”