Posts Tagged: court case

Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins: The Law of Stereotyping

In Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, 490 U.S. 228 (1989), the Supreme Court recognized Title VII’s prohibition on sex discrimination necessarily includes a prohibition on gender stereotyping. The female employee in Price Waterhouse was denied a promotion because she was “macho,” “tough-talking,” and used “foul language,” and therefore failed to conform to certain gender stereotypes related to women. Id. at 235, 250-53. Six members of the Court held that adverse employment action like this, rooted in “sex stereotyping” or “gender stereotyping,” was actionable sex discrimination.

Facts

Hopkins worked for an accounting firm, Price Waterhouse, at its Office of Government Services in Washington, D.C. Despite several years of strong performance, she was denied partnership in the firm.

Price Waterhouse denied Hopkins partnership, in essence, because of her aggressive personality, which sometimes bordered on abrasiveness. For example, partners evaluating her work had counseled her to improve her relations with staff members. And although Hopkins’ evaluations later noted improvement, her perceived shortcomings in this area ultimately doomed her bid for partnership. In the firm’s consideration of Hopkins for a promotion to partner, virtually all of the firm’s partners’ negative remarks about her had to do with her “interpersonal skills.” Id. at 234-35. Both “[s]upporters and opponents of her candidacy … indicated that she was sometimes overly aggressive, unduly harsh, difficult to work with and impatient with staff.” Id.

The Court observed that there were “clear signs” that some of the partners reacted negatively to Hopkins’ personality because she was a woman. Id. One partner described her as “macho”; another suggested that she “overcompensated for being a woman”; a third advised her to take “a course at charm school.” Id. Several partners criticized her use of profanity; in response, one partner suggested that those partners objected to her swearing only “because it’s a lady using foul language.” Id. Another supporter explained that Hopkins “ha[d] matured from a tough-talking somewhat masculine hard-nosed mgr to an authoritative, formidable, but much more appealing lady ptr candidate.” Id. But the male supervisor who bore responsibility for explaining to Hopkins the reasons for the firm’s decision to not grant her partnership described her purported failings in terms of stereotypes about how women should behave: in order to improve her chances for partnership, the firm advised, Hopkins should “walk more femininely, talk more femininely, dress more femininely, wear make-up, have her hair styled, and wear jewelry.” Id. at 235.

In short, the record indicated Price Waterhouse denied Hopkins partnership because she did not behave the way Price Waterhouse believed women should behave.

Hopkins filed suit against Price Waterhouse under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, on the grounds that she was unlawfully denied partnership because of her sex.

Applicable Law

As discussed in an earlier post, Title VII makes it unlawful for an employer to “discharge any individual, or otherwise discriminate against any individual … because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1).

Sex need only be a motivating factor, and not the only reason for the discharge or other discrimination. “[A]n unlawful employment practice is established when … sex … was a motivating factor for any employment practice, even though other factors also motivated the practice.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(m).

This section clearly prohibits an employer from refusing to hire or promote a female because she is female and the employer would prefer a male. Price Waterhouse addressed the question of whether Title VII also prohibits an employer from discriminating against an individual because she or he does not conform to the employer’s (or society’s) stereotypes about how the different sexes should behave.

The Court’s Decision

Addressing the facts in Price Waterhouse, the Supreme Court held, inter alia, that Title VII’s prohibition on sex discrimination necessarily includes a prohibition on gender stereotyping. The Court noted that Hopkins was denied a promotion because she was “macho,” “tough-talking,” and used “foul language,” and therefore failed to conform to certain stereotypes related to women. Id at 235, 250-53. Six members of the Court held that adverse employment action rooted in such “sex stereotyping” or “gender stereotyping” was actionable sex discrimination. Id. at 250–52 (plurality; “an employer who acts on the basis of a belief that a woman cannot be aggressive, or that she must not be, has acted on the basis of gender”); see also id. at 258 (White, J., concurring); id. at 272–73 (O’Connor, J., concurring).

Analysis

This case is important in the context of developing and understanding Title VII’s prohibition against employment discrimination “because of sex.” Under Price Waterhouse, a discharge (or other adverse employment action) based at least partly on gender stereotyping is unlawful sex discrimination under Title VII. As the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals explained in G.G. ex rel. Grimm (Grimm II), “the Supreme Court has expressly recognized that claims based on an individual’s failure to conform to societal expectations based on that person’s gender constitute discrimination ‘because of sex’ under Title VII[.]” 654 Fed. Appx. 606, 606–07 (4th Cir. 2016) (Davis, J., concurring) (internal citations omitted).

As the American Psychological Association explained in its amicus brief in Price Waterhouse, sex stereotyping can create discriminatory consequences for stereotyped groups — for example, where they shape perceptions about women’s typical and acceptable roles in society. The APA further explained, as seen in the circumstances surrounding Hopkins’ partnership denial, how sex stereoptyping can have negative effects on women in work settings. The Supreme Court’s decision in Price Waterhouse allowed Title VII to be applied in a manner that seeks to address and remedy these issues.

Following the reasoning in Price Waterhouse, courts around the country have consistently held that an employer violates Title VII when it takes adverse action against an employee because she or he does not behave the way the employer believes the different sexes should behave. For example, Stegall v. Citadel Broad. Co., 350 F.3d 1061, 1072 (9th Cir. 2003), as amended (Jan. 6, 2004) characterized employer complaints about “assertive, strong women” as “difficult,” “having a negative attitude,” “not a team player,” and “problematic” as sex stereotypes that show discrimination. For similar reasons, in Hively v. Ivy Tech Cmty. Coll., 853 F.3d 339, 351–52 (7th Cir. 2017) (en banc) the Seventh Circuit held that a female plaintiff could state a Title VII claim under a sex stereotyping theory. In Christiansen v. Omnicom Grp., Inc., 852 F.3d 195, 200–01 (2d Cir. 2017) (per curiam) the Second Circuit likewise held that the plaintiff employee stated a plausible Title VII claim based on a gender stereotyping theory. As did the Third Circuit, in Prowel v. Wise Bus. Forms, Inc., 579 F.3d 285, 290 (3d Cir. 2009) (collecting cases, noting “the Supreme Court held that Title VII prohibits discrimination against women for failing to conform to a traditionally feminine demeanor and appearance”). In Nichols v. Azteca Rest. Enters., Inc., 256 F.3d 864, 874–75 (9th Cir. 2001), the Ninth Circuit applied Price Waterhouse in the context of sex discrimination against a male employee, observing that “the holding in Price Waterhouse applies with equal force to a man who is discriminated against for acting too feminine.” Similarly, in Schwenk v. Hartford, 204 F.3d 1187, 1202 (9th Cir. 2000), the court noted that Title VII forbids “[d]iscrimination because one fails to act in the way expected of a man or woman”). The First Circuit applied Price Waterhouse in Higgins v. New Balance Athletic Shoe, Inc., 194 F.3d 252, 261 n.4 (1st Cir. 1999), observing that “a woman can ground an action on a claim that men discriminated against her because she did not meet stereotyped expectations of femininity.”

For some additional examples of stereotyping discrimination in the trial courts, see Grimm v. Gloucester Cty. Sch. Bd., 302 F. Supp. 3d 730, 746 (E.D. Va. 2018) (discussing the gender-stereotyping theory of Price Waterhouse, collecting cases, and concluding claims of discrimination on the basis of failure to conform with gender-based societal expectations are “per se sex discrimination under Title VII[.]”); and Klings v. New York State Office of Court Admin., 2010 WL 1292256, *11, *15-16 (E.D.N.Y. Apr. 5, 2010) (complaints that the female plaintiff had an “abrasive personality” and was “condescending” could reflect a “gender bias: that women do not have leadership and motivational skills, [and] cannot manage aggressively[.]”).

In summary, Price Waterhouse was an important case because, among other things, it confirmed that Title VII’s language prohibiting discrimination “because of sex” includes a prohibition on gender stereotyping.

This site is intended to provide general information only. The information you obtain at this site is not legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship between you and attorney Tim Coffield or Coffield PLC. Parts of this site may be considered attorney advertising. If you have questions about any particular issue or problem, you should contact your attorney. Please view the full disclaimer. If you would like to request a consultation with attorney Tim Coffield, you may call 1-434-218-3133 or send an email to info@coffieldlaw.com.

Griggs v. Duke Power: Disparate Impact Without Discriminatory Intent

The Supreme Court’s decision in Griggs v. Duke Power Company, 401 U.S. 424 (1971), addressed the Title VII issues created by employer policies that are facially neutral, but which adversely impact employees on the basis of race, sex, or religion. In short, the Griggs Court decided that where an employer uses a neutral policy or rule, or utilizes a neutral test, and this policy or test disproportionately affects minorities or women in an adverse manner, then the neutral rule or test violates Title VII unless the employer proves it is justified by “business necessity.”

Summary

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from treating employees differently because of their race, sex, or religion. This means, obviously, that an employer cannot refuse to hire an applicant because of the applicant’s race. But sometimes employers may implement policies, or require applicants to take tests, that work to disadvantaged members of one sex, race, or religion over others — even though the employer may not have intended the policy or test to have that effect. For example, in Griggs, Duke Power had a policy that required employees in all but its lowest-paying jobs to have a high school diploma or pass “intelligence” tests. There was no evidence Duke Power intended this policy to discriminate against minority workers. The employees in Griggs argued this policy violated Title VII because it disproportionately impacted black workers.

The Griggs Court reasoned that Congress designed Title VII to address the consequences of employment practices and not just the employer’s motivation. Therefore, a neutrally-worded employment policy or test that has the effect of disproportionately impacting employees of one sex, race, or religion, may be unlawful under Title VII even if the employer did not intend that policy or test to be discriminatory in that way. The Griggs decision made it possible for employees to challenge employment practices that disadvantage certain groups if the employer cannot show the policy is justified by business necessity and paved the way for the Civil Rights Act of 1991, which codified the “disparate impact” theory of discrimination endorsed by Griggs.

Facts

Before Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Duke Power intentionally discriminated against African-American employees by only allowing these employees to work in the company’s low-paying labor department. In 1955, the company implemented a policy requiring potential employees to have a high school diploma before they could work in any department except for the labor department. After the Civil Rights Act went into effect in 1965, Duke Power extended this policy to block employees who had not graduated high school from transferring or being promoted from its labor department to other departments within the company. Duke Power later amended this policy to allow employees who had not graduated high school to transfer from labor to other departments provided they were able to garner certain scores on “intelligence” tests. Here’s an article about the history behind this case.

Griggs filed a class action on behalf of twelve African American employees, claiming this diploma/testing policy violated Title VII by disproportionately impacting black workers. The case did not involve evidence that Duke Power intended its policy to harm black workers. The issue, then, was whether an employer’s facially neutral policy or test could violate the anti-discrimination provisions of Title VII on the grounds that the policy had the effect of disadvantaging minority workers.

Procedural Posture

The trial court dismissed the complaint. Griggs appealed. The Fourth Circuit affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded, holding that in the absence of a discriminatory purpose, Duke Power’s policy requiring a high school diploma or passing an “intelligence” test as a condition of employment was lawful under the Civil Rights Act. The Fourth Circuit, therefore, rejected Griggs’ claim that because Duke Power’s policy operated to render ineligible for employment a disproportionately high number of minority workers, the policy violated Title VII’s anti-discrimination provisions unless the employer proved the policy was job-related.

The Court’s Decision

The Court reversed. It held that Title VII prohibited Duke Power from requiring employees to produce a high school diploma or pass an “intelligence” test as a condition of employment, because Duke Power failed to show that these standards were significantly related to successful job performance, and both requirements operated to disqualify minority workers at a substantially higher rate than white applicants. The Court also observed that the jobs in question formerly had been filled only by white employees as part of Duke Power’s long-standing practice of giving preference to whites.

The Court pointed out that Congress’ objective for Title VII was to “achieve equality of employment opportunities and remove barriers that have operated in the past to favor an identifiable group of white employees over other employees.” 401 U.S. at 429–30. Therefore, under Title VII, “practices, procedures, or tests neutral on their face, and even neutral in terms of intent, cannot be maintained if they operate to ‘freeze’ the status quo of prior discriminatory employment practices.” Id. at 430. Intent is not dispositive. Title VII requires “the removal of artificial, arbitrary, and unnecessary barriers to employment when the barriers operate invidiously to discriminate on the basis of racial or other impermissible classification.” Id. at 431.

The critical point here was the Court’s understanding that “good intent or absence of discriminatory intent does not redeem employment procedures or testing mechanisms that operate as ‘built-in headwinds’ for minority groups and are unrelated to measuring job capability.” Id. at 432; see also Civil Rights Act of 1964, §§ 701 et seq., 703(a) (2), (h), 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e et seq., 2000e–2(a) (2), (h). Title VII “proscribes not only overt discrimination but also practices that are fair in form, but discriminatory in operation.” 401 U.S. at 431.

After all, Congress intended Title VII to address “the consequences of employment practices, not simply the motivation.” Id. at 432. More than that, Title VII places on the employer “the burden of showing that any given requirement must have a manifest relationship to the employment in question.” Id. Therefore, an employer’s facially-neutral policy or test can violate the anti-discrimination provisions of Title VII if the policy has the effect of disadvantaging minority workers, and the employer fails to prove the policy or test is justified by “business necessity.” Id. at 431. “If an employment practice which operates to exclude [minority workers] cannot be shown to be related to job performance, the practice is prohibited.” Id.

Analysis

After Griggs, a neutrally-worded employment policy or test that has the effect of disproportionately impacting employees of one sex, race, or religion, may be unlawful under Title VII even if the employer did not intend that policy or test to be discriminatory in that way. The Griggs decision made it possible for employees to challenge employment practices that disadvantage certain groups if the employer cannot show the policy is justified by business necessity. Griggs also paved the way for the Civil Rights Act of 1991 (text here) which codified the “disparate impact” theory of discrimination endorsed by Griggs. In contrast to disparate treatment cases, which often turn on evidence of the employer’s intent, disparate impact cases commonly use statistical analyses to assess whether an employer’s policy or test runs afoul of Title VII by disproportionately harming employees of a certain race(s), sex, or religion.

This site is intended to provide general information only. The information you obtain at this site is not legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship between you and attorney Tim Coffield or Coffield PLC. Parts of this site may be considered attorney advertising. If you have questions about any particular issue or problem, you should contact your attorney. Please view the full disclaimer. If you would like to request a consultation with attorney Tim Coffield, you may call 1-434-218-3133 or send an email to info@coffieldlaw.com.