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Supreme Court may take same-sex harassment case

December 16, 1996

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Supreme Court wants to hear the Clinton administration’s opinion before moving further in the case of an offshore oil rig worker who says he was sexually pursued and harassed by his male supervisor.

The court asked Justice Department lawyers Monday whether they think same-sex sexual harassment violates federal law. A response could take months, and the court won’t say whether it will grant full review to Joseph Oncale’s case until it hears from the government.

Monday’s brief order marked the first sign that the justices were interested in the issue. They previously had turned away several appeals raising same-sex sexual harassment claims.

Oncale worked in 1991 as a roustabout assigned to a Louisiana offshore oil rig with Sundowner Offshore Services.

His lawsuit against Sundowner said he was sexually assaulted, battered, touched and threatened with rape by his direct supervisor, John Lyons, and a second supervisor, Danny Pippen.

A third defendant, co-worker Brandon Johnson, was accused of assisting Lyons in one of the alleged incidents.

Oncale’s lawsuit said he twice reported the situation to his employer’s highest-ranking representative on the job site, but no action was taken.

Oncale quit, his lawsuit said, because he feared the harassment would escalate to rape.

In his Supreme Court appeal, Oncale said he was not the only target of Lyon’s sexual harassment. And he said he has evidence in the form of testimony from other victims.

Oncale’s lawsuit, based on a federal law banning sexual discrimination and harassment in employment, was thrown out by a federal trial judge. Same-sex harassment is not covered by the law known as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the judge said.

A three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the lawsuit’s dismissal last May.

``Same-sex harassment claims are not viable under Title VII,″ the appeals court panel said.

It noted an earlier ruling by another 5th Circuit court panel that said ``harassment by a male supervisor against a male subordinate does not state a claim under Title VII even though the harassment has sexual overtones.″

Other appeals courts, however, have indicated that same-sex claims of harassment should not be excluded from the federal law’s prohibitions.

Oncale had been hired through Sundowner’s office in Houma, La., and was assigned to Chevron USA’s Ship Shoal 266-A offshore platform.

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