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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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