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Supreme Court in the 1980s

Decisions issued by the Supreme Court during the 1980s were at times consistent with Commission views, but at other times at odds with Commission positions. Some decisions strengthened fundamental principles, especially in the area of disparate impact, wage discrimination, and sexual harassment. Other decisions, notably near the end of the 1980s, created uncertainties that could only be addressed through Congressional action. Some of the significant Supreme Court decisions of the 1980s include:

  • County of Washington v. Gunther (1981), held that an amendment incorporating affirmative defenses of the EPA into Title VII did not limit Title VII wage discrimination claims to those of the EPA. This decision affirmed EEOC's interpretation that Title VII sex discrimination covers wage discrimination based on sex independent of the EPA.
  • Connecticut v. Teal (1982), held that an employer is liable for race discrimination where any part of its selection process, such as an examination, has a disparate impact on black applicants or employees, even if the "bottom line" result of the employer's hiring or promotional practice is racially balanced. This decision made clear that the fair employment laws protect the individual and therefore fair treatment of a group is no defense to an individual claim of discrimination.
  • EEOC v. Wyoming (1983), held that Congress did not violate the U.S. Constitution when it made the ADEA applicable to state and local governments. This was a crucial ruling for ADEA enforcement because state and local government employment was one of the fastest growing sectors of the economy.
  • Meritor v. Vinson (1986), the Supreme Court's first sexual harassment case, affirmed EEOC's interpretation that sexual harassment that is sufficiently severe or pervasive to create a hostile work environment violates Title VII.
  • Johnson v. Transportation Agency, Santa Clara County (1987), upheld a voluntary affirmative action plan and delineated requirements for the lawfulness of such plans. The Court said that for such a plan to be valid, an employer must show a "manifest imbalance" in the representation of minorities or women in traditionally segregated job categories, that the plan is temporary, and that the plan does not unnecessarily restrict rights of male or non-minority employees or create an absolute barrier to their advancement.
  • Watson v. Forth Worth Bank & Trust Co. (1988), held that the disparate impact analysis can be applied to subjective or discretionary selection practices, such as promotion decisions. Previously, the Court had applied this analysis only to employment tests and other objective practices.
  • Public Employees Retirement System of Ohio v. Betts (1989), held that the ADEA does not prohibit discrimination in benefit plans as long as a plan is not a subterfuge to discriminate in some non-fringe benefit aspect of employment. Betts was overturned legislatively by the Older Workers Benefit Protection Act of 1990.
  • Lorrance v. AT&T Technologies (1989), held that the time in which a facially neutral seniority system can be challenged runs from the adoption of the allegedly discriminatory system. The Court rejected EEOC's position that the limitations period begins to run only when the employee is adversely affected by the seniority system. Lorrance was overturned legislatively by the Civil Rights Act of 1991.
  • Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins (1989), held that if a plaintiff shows that discrimination played a "motivating part" in an employment decision, the employer can avoid liability only by proving by a preponderance of the evidence that it would not have made the same decision in the absence of the discriminatory motive. Later, the Civil Rights Act of 1991 imposed liability for injunctive relief and attorney's fees even where the employer meets this burden of proof.
  • Wards Cove Packing Co. v. Antonio (1989), held that a plaintiff may make a showing of a disparate impact violation of Title VII only by demonstrating that specific practices (and not the cumulative effect of the employer's selection practices) adversely affected a protected group. Further, the Court held that when a showing of disparate impact is made, the employer must only produce evidence of a business justification for the practice, and that the burden of proof always remains with the employee. In response to Wards Cove, the Civil Rights Act of 1991 provided that once a disparate impact has been demonstrated, the employer must show that the challenged practice is both job-related and consistent with business necessity, and has the burden of proof on these issues.

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