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Relevant Case Law

HR professionals must be well versed in key precedent-setting cases relating to EEO, as a subset of workforce planning and employment. The following summaries (presented in chronological order) describe the significance of some of those landmark cases.

Griggs v. Duke Power, 1971

Key issue: Adverse impact.

Significance: Discrimination need not be deliberate or observable to be real. Rather, it can exist if a particular policy or practice has a statistically significant adverse impact on members of a protected class. This is true even when the same requirement applies to all employees or applicants, as was the situation in this case. When a particular requirement does have an impact on members of a protected class, the burden of proof rests with the employer to demonstrate that the requirement is, in fact, job related and consistent with business necessity.

McDonnell Douglas Corp v. Green, 1973

Key issue: Disparate treatment/prima facie.

Significance: The initial burden of proof for establishing a prima facie (Latin for “at first view”) case of discrimination against an employer (or potential employer) under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 rests with the employee (or applicant), who must be able to establish four key elements:

  • The person is a member of a protected class.
  • The person applied for a job for which the employer was seeking applicants.
  • The person was rejected, despite being qualified for the position.
  • After this rejection, the employer continued to seek other applicants with similar qualifications.

After the employee establishes a prima facie case for disparate treatment, the burden of proof then shifts to the employer, who must provide a nondiscriminatory reason for its decision.

This case falls under the category of “reverse discrimination” because it alleged race discrimination and was brought by individuals who were not minorities/people of color.

Albemarle Paper v. Moody, 1975

Key issue: Employment tests — job relatedness and validity of employment tests.

Significance: Any tests that are used as part of the hiring or promotional decision-making process must be job related. This applies to any instrument that is used as a “test,” even if that was not its original purpose. This case also established that employment tests must demonstrate predictive validity, consistent with the Uniform Guidelines for Employee Selection Procedures.

Washington v. Davis, 1976

Key issue: Employment tests and disparate impact.

Significance: A test that has an adverse impact on a protected class is still lawful as long as the test can be shown to be valid and job related.

Regents of California v. Bakke, 1978

Key issue: Affirmative action.

Significance: The Supreme Court ruled that although race could be a factor in college admission decisions, quotas could not be established.

Although this case was based on a college admissions program, its significance extended to workplace affirmative action programs.

This case falls under the category of “reverse discrimination” because it alleged race discrimination and was brought by someone who was not a minority/person of color.

United Steelworkers v. Weber, 1979

Key issue: Affirmative action.

Significance: Affirmative action plans that establish voluntary quotas that have been jointly agreed to by an organization as well as its collective bargaining unit do not constitute race discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 if they are designed to remedy past discrimination that has resulted in current underutilization.

This case falls under the category of “reverse discrimination” because it alleged race discrimination and was brought by someone who was not a minority/person of color.

Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, 1986

Key issue: Sexual harassment.

Significance: This was the first ruling to establish that sexual harassment (whether quid pro quo or hostile environment) constitutes a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In addition, the court ruled that it isn’t enough for an organization to have a policy prohibiting discrimination. Instead, the ruling stated, “Reasonable care requires effective communication of policies and training. The employer has the burden of proof.”

Johnson v. Santa Clara County Transportation Agency, 1987

Key issue: Affirmative action.

Significance: Gender can be used as a factor in the selection process if there is underrepresentation in a particular job classification, as long as the AAP does not set forth a quota.

This case falls under the category of “reverse discrimination” because it alleged sex discrimination and was brought by a man.

Martin v. Wilks, 1988

Key issue: Affirmative action.

Significance: Current employees who are negatively affected by consent decrees that were established in an earlier time and that sought to resolve discrimination that was present in an earlier time may challenge the validity of such decrees.

This case falls under the category of “reverse discrimination” because it alleged race discrimination and was brought by individuals who were not minorities/people of color.

Automobile Workers v. Johnson Controls, 1990

Key issue: Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.

Significance: The Supreme Court ruled that Johnson Controls’ fetal protection policy constituted a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. As such, even rules that are well intentioned are unlawful if such rules result in discrimination on the basis of sex.

Harris v. Forklift Systems, 1993

Key issue: Sexual harassment.

Significance: The court clarified the standard relative to what constitutes a sexually hostile work environment: “This standard, which we reaffirm today, takes a middle path between making actionable any conduct that is merely offensive and requiring the conduct to cause a tangible psychological injury. Conduct that is not severe or pervasive enough to create an objectively hostile or abusive work environment—an environment that a reasonable person would find hostile or abusive—is beyond Title VII’s purview. Likewise, if the victim does not subjectively perceive the environment to be abusive, the conduct has not actually altered the conditions of the victim’s employment, and there is no Title VII violation.”

Taxman v. Board of Education of Piscataway, 1993

Key issue: Affirmative action.

Significance: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled that—in the absence of underrepresentation as demonstrated and documented through an affirmative action plan—organizations cannot take race into account when making decisions relative to who will be laid off and who will be retained. Doing so would constitute a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

This case falls under the category of “reverse discrimination” because it alleged race discrimination and was brought by a person who was not a minority/person of color.

St. Mary’s Honor Center v. Hicks, 1993

Key issue: Burden of proof.

Significance: To ultimately prevail in an allegation of discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the charging party (meaning, the employee who filed the charge) must go beyond a prima facie case and actually prove that the employer’s actual reasons for an employment action are, in fact, discriminatory.

McKennon v. Nashville Banner Publishing Co., 1995

Key issue: After-acquired evidence.

Significance: An employer will be held accountable for discriminatory employment actions even if it discovers evidence after taking the discriminatory employment action that would have led the employer to that same employment action for legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons.

This case falls under the category of “reverse discrimination” since it alleged race discrimination and was brought by someone who was not a minority/person of color.

Faragher v. City of Boca Raton, 1998, and Ellerth v. Burlington Northern Industries, 1998

Key issue: Sexual harassment.

Significance: If an employee is subjected to a tangible adverse employment action because of a supervisor’s sexually harassing behavior, the employer is liable. The employer is also vicariously liable when its supervisors create a sexually hostile work environment, even if the employee is not subjected to an adverse employment action. This is true whether or not the employer itself was negligent or otherwise at fault. However, if the employee is not subjected to tangible adverse employment action, the employer may be able to raise as a defense that he acted reasonably to prevent or promptly correct any sexually harassing behavior and that the plaintiff unreasonably failed to take advantage of the employer’s preventive or corrective opportunities.

Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, 1999

Key issue: Sex discrimination, by members of one sex against a person of the same sex.

Significance: Title VII’s prohibition of sex discrimination does include harassment of individuals by others who happen to be the same sex.

Kolstad v. American Dental Association, 1999

Key issue: Punitive damages under the Civil Rights Act of 1991.

Significance: Punitive damages can be awarded only when the employer has acted with malice and reckless indifference to the employee’s federally protected rights.

This subjective standard was considered to be easier to establish than the more objective standard that would be required if employees had to prove that the nature of the actual behavior to which they had been subjected reached a level in which it would be considered “egregious.”

Circuit City Stores, Inc. v. Adams, 2001

Key issue: Mandatory arbitration agreements as a condition of employment.

Significance: The Supreme Court confirmed the legality of requiring employees to sign mandatory arbitration agreements as a condition of employment and that such agreements are enforceable under the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA), with the exception of seamen and railway workers.

Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger, 2003

Context: Barbara Grutter was applying for admission to the University of Michigan Law School, and Jennifer Gratz was applying for admission to the University of Michigan as an undergraduate student. Lee Bollinger was the president of the University of Michigan.

Key issue: Affirmative action.

Significance: Race can be taken into account as an admissions factor because it furthers the establishment of diversity—a “compelling state interest”—as long as the admissions process is “narrowly tailored” to achieve the objective of achieving a diverse student body.

Interestingly, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor indicated that cases of this sort will likely be ruled differently at some point in the future: “Race-conscious admissions policies must be limited in time. The Court takes the Law School at its word that it would like nothing better than to find a race-neutral admissions formula and will terminate its use of racial preferences as soon as practicable. The Court expects that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today.”

These cases fall under the category of “reverse discrimination” because they alleged race discrimination and were brought by people who were not minorities/people of color.

General Dynamics Land Systems v. Cline, 2004

Key issue: Age discrimination (relative).

Significance: Younger employees (even if they are over the age of 40) cannot allege age discrimination because of the establishment of programs or decisions that favor older employees. As Justice David Souter wrote in the opening of his opinion, “The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA or Act), 81 Stat. 602, 29 U.S.C. § 621 et seq., forbids discriminatory preference for the young over the old. The question in this case is whether it also prohibits favoring the old over the young. We hold it does not.”

This case falls under the category of “reverse discrimination” because it alleged age discrimination and was brought by a person who was relatively younger.

Ricci v. DeStefano, 2009

Key issue: Disparate impact.

Significance: The Supreme Court confirmed that, “fear of litigation alone cannot justify an employer’s reliance on race to the detriment of individuals who passed the examinations and qualified for promotions.”

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc., 2015

Key issue: The need for religious accommodation, when such need has not been explicitly communicated to the employer.

Significance: According to the Supreme Court, “motive and knowledge are separate concepts. An employer who has actual knowledge of the need for an accommodation does not violate Title VII by refusing to hire an applicant if avoiding that accommodation is not his motive. Conversely, an employer who acts with the motive of avoiding accommodation may violate Title VII even if he has no more than an unsubstantiated suspicion that accommodation would be needed.”

This case involved an applicant named Samantha Eluef. Eleuf, a practicing Muslim, wore a hijab to her interview but did not specifically request a religious accommodation to wear it on a daily basis at work.

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