Griggs v. Duke Power Company

In Griggs v. Duke Power Company (1971), the U.S. Supreme Court first articulated how to review cases of disparate-impact discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In its unanimous opinion, the Court held that an employment practice violates Title VII if it operates to exclude or discriminate against employees or job seekers on grounds of race, color, national origin, religion, or sex and the policies are unrelated to job performance.

Facts of the Case

Willie Griggs represented a class of African American employees who challenged the Duke Power Company’s requirements of a high school diploma and an intelligence test as prerequisites for obtaining a job. Griggs was able to prove that both requirements operated to disqualify minority applicants at a higher rate than those who were White and that neither requirement was related to successful job performance. However, Griggs was unable to show a discriminatory purpose, and the Power Company argued that this was required in order to prove it had discriminated.

After a federal trial court in North Carolina dismissed Griggs’s complaint, the Supreme Court reversed in his behalf. The Court disagreed with the Duke Power Company, ruling instead that Griggs had proven a case of disparate-impact discrimination.

Most Title VII cases that are brought in the educational context allege intentional discrimination, using the framework the Court provided in McDonnell Douglas Corporation v. Green (1973). At the same time, since Griggs stands for the proposition that Title VII prohibits disparate impact, there have been a number of successful disparate-impact cases dealing with job and promotion requirements. Disparate impact occurs when employer policies that are neutral on their face, such as graduation requirements, are shown to disadvantage members of a particular protected group.

The Court’s Ruling

In Griggs, the Supreme Court found that when challenging a “facially neutral” employment policy or requirement, a plaintiff must establish a prima facie case. Prima facie means that a court will presume that a discrimination claim is true unless disproved by contrary evidence. A job seeker or employee can establish a prima facie case by demonstrating that an employer’s policies excluded persons in a protected group more often than it did others. This is commonly proven by a statistical demonstration of a disparity that is not likely to have occurred by chance. If the job seeker or employee succeeds in showing a disparate impact, the burden shifts to the employer to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the challenged policy or test was a job-related, business necessity.

In Watson v. Fort Worth Bank and Trust (1988), the Supreme Court added an additional element for job seekers and employees to prove a case of disparateimpact discrimination. The Fort Worth Bank was able to prove that the disparate impact was justified by a business necessity. The Court determined that plaintiffs will still prevail if they can demonstrate that there are other policies that discriminate less yet still meet the employer’s business needs. Accordingly, if an employer is able to prove a job-related business necessity, the burden of proof returns to the plaintiff to show that an alternative policy would have served the employer’s business needs without the same discriminatory effect.

The Civil Rights Act of 1991 clarified that the courts should continue to use the standards laid out in Griggs and Watson. Once job seekers or employees establish that there is a disparate impact, the burden of proof shifts to employers on the ground that they, not the employees, are in the best position to know why a practice is necessary. Moreover, in justifying a practice that has a disparate impact, employers must show that employment practices are job related for the positions in question and consistent with business necessity.

Title VII does create an affirmative defense for employers: the bona fide occupational qualification (BFOQ). Although similar to a business necessity, as discussed above, the BFOQ defense permits intentional discrimination on the grounds of religion or sex, but not race, in very limited cases. In certain circumstances in which religion or sex is a bona fide occupational qualification reasonably necessary to the normal operation of an enterprise, an employer can require a particular religious membership or gender as a job qualification. In general, the courts view the BFOQ defense as a narrow exception to the general prohibition against discrimination.

Karen Miksch

See also Disparate Impact; McDonnell Douglas Corporation v. Green; Tenure; Title VII

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