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Supreme Court in the 1970s

The Supreme Court decided several cases that would become landmarks in the decade of the 1970s and that would bolster EEOC enforcement efforts. These important decisions supported the Commission's broad definition of discrimination as well as the affirmative remedies required to eliminate it. In addition, many of the cases addressed the rights of minorities and women, as well as the protections afforded to individuals' religious practices.

The most cited case in employment discrimination law was decided during this time. In McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green (1973), the Supreme Court established the basic analytical framework for proving an individual case of intentional discrimination, or disparate treatment, under Title VII. The Court held that a plaintiff could prove unlawful discrimination indirectly in a hiring case by showing that (1) the plaintiff is a member of a Title VII protected group; (2) the plaintiff applied and was qualified for the position sought; (3) the employer rejected the plaintiff for the job; and (4) the employer continued to seek applicants with similar qualifications after the rejection. The Court held that once such a bare showing has been made, an employer to avoid liability must articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason explaining its refusal to hire. The analytical framework of McDonnell Douglas has since been applied to cases brought under all of EEOC's other statutes and in one form or another to most kinds of employment decisions.

Other significant cases decided by the Supreme Court during the 1970s include:

  • Espinoza v. Farah Manufacturing Company (1973), holding that non-citizens are entitled to Title VII protection. The Court stated that a citizenship requirement for a job may violate the law if it has the purpose or effect of discriminating on the basis of national origin. Following this decision, the Commission issued revised guidelines in l975, prohibiting imposition of a citizenship requirement as a job criterion where it has the "purpose or effect" of excluding persons of a particular national origin.
  • Alexander v. Gardner-Denver Co. (1974), holding that an employee who submits a discrimination claim to arbitration under a collective bargaining agreement and loses is not precluded from suing under Title VII. The Court stated that TitleVII confers an individual right to equal employment opportunities that cannot be bargained away by the union and employer.
  • Albemarle Paper Co. v. Moody (1975), holding that when a finding of discrimination has been made, there is a presumption that back pay should be provided to make individual victims whole.
  • General Electric v. Gilbert (1976), holding that excluding disabilities related to pregnancy from a health insurance plan did not constitute sex-based discrimination under Title VII. In response, Congress enacted the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, which amended Title VII to explicitly prohibit discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, reinstating EEOC's interpretation of the law.
  • Franks v. Bowman Transportation Co. (1976), holding that retroactive seniority to the date the individual was unlawfully denied a position is appropriate relief for a victim of discrimination.
  • International Brotherhood of Teamsters v. U.S. (1977), holding that statistics are probative of discrimination, especially when combined with anecdotal evidence.
  • Hazelwood School District v. U.S. (1977), clarifying the use of statistics in Title VII cases, the Court held that the government could establish a prima facie case of race discrimination by comparing the racial composition of an employer's workforce with the racial composition of the relevant labor market, and indicated the rate of disparity that would support an inference of discrimination.
  • Trans World Airlines Inc. v. Hardison (1977), accepting EEOC guidelines requiring an employer to make a reasonable accommodation for employees' and applicants' religious needs where this would not create an undue hardship. However, the Court established a de minimis level for demonstrating undue hardship.
  • Los Angeles Department of Water and Power v. Manhart (1978), holding that employers may not require female employees to make larger contributions to pension plans in order to obtain the same monthly benefits as men. The Court, agreeing with EEOC, specifically rejected a cost-justification defense that was based on the fact that women, on average, live longer than men.
  • United Steel Workers of America v. Weber (1979), holding that voluntary affirmative action programs are not illegal even if they include numerical goals and timetables, provided that they are intended to "eliminate a manifest racial imbalance" caused by past discrimination, are "temporary," and "do not unnecessarily trammel on interests of" or "create an absolute bar to advancement of" non-minority employees.

Next: Prelude to the 1980s - Reorganization and Expanded Authority

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