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PENNSYLVANIA STATE POLICE v. SUDERS, 542 U.S. 129

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PENNSYLVANIA STATE POLICE v. SUDERS

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE THIRD CIRCUIT

No. 03-95. Argued March 31, 2004--Decided June 14, 2004

In March 1998, the Pennsylvania State Police (PSP) hired plaintiff-respondent Suders to work as a police communications operator for the McConnellsburg barracks, where 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 sued the PSP, alleging, 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. Although recognizing that Suders' testimony would permit a fact trier to conclude that her supervisors had created a hostile work environment, the court nevertheless held that the PSP was not vicariously liable for the supervisors' conduct. In support of its decision, the District Court referred to Faragher v. Boca Raton, 524 U. S. 775, 808. In that case, and in Burlington Industries, Inc. v. Ellerth, 524 U. S. 742, decided the same day, this Court held that an employer is strictly liable for supervisor harassment that "culminates in a tangible employment action, such as discharge, demotion, or undesirable reassignment." 524 U. S., at 765. But when no such tangible action is taken, both decisions also hold, the employer may raise an affirmative defense to liability. To prevail on the basis of the defense, the employer must prove that "(a) [it] exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct promptly any sexually harassing behavior," and that (b) the employee "unreasonably failed to take advantage of any preventive or corrective opportunities provided by the employer or to avoid harm otherwise." Ibid. Suders' hostile work environment claim was untenable as a matter of law, the District Court stated, because she unreasonably failed to avail herself of the PSP's internal antiharassment procedures. The court did not address Suders' constructive discharge claim.


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