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WATSON v. FORT WORTH BANK & TRUST

decided: June 29, 1988.

WATSON
v.
FORT WORTH BANK & TRUST



CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FIFTH CIRCUIT.

O'Connor, J., announced the judgment of the Court and delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I, II-A, II-B, and III, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and Brennan, White, Marshall, Blackmun, and Scalia, JJ., joined, and an opinion with respect to Parts II-C and II-D in which Rehnquist, C. J., and White and Scalia, JJ., joined. Blackmun, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, in which Brennan and Marshall, JJ., joined, post, p. 1000. Stevens, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 1011. Kennedy, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

Author: O'connor

[ 487 U.S. Page 982]

 JUSTICE O'CONNOR announced the judgment of the Court and delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I, II-A, II-B, and III, and an opinion with respect to parts II-C and II-D, in which THE CHIEF JUSTICE, JUSTICE WHITE, and JUSTICE SCALIA join.

This case requires us to decide what evidentiary standards should be applied under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 78 Stat. 253, as amended, 42 U. S. C. § 2000e et seq., in determining whether an employer's practice of committing promotion decisions to the subjective discretion of supervisory employees has led to illegal discrimination.

I

Petitioner Clara Watson, who is black, was hired by respondent Fort Worth Bank and Trust (the Bank) as a proof operator in August 1973. In January 1976, Watson was promoted to a position as teller in the Bank's drive-in facility. In February 1980, she sought to become supervisor of the tellers in the main lobby; a white male, however, was selected for this job. Watson then sought a position as supervisor of the drive-in bank, but this position was given to a white female. In February 1981, after Watson had served for about a year as a commercial teller in the Bank's main lobby, and informally as assistant to the supervisor of tellers, the man holding that position was promoted. Watson applied for the vacancy, but the white female who was the supervisor of the drive-in bank was selected instead. Watson then applied for the vacancy created at the drive-in; a white male was selected for that job. The Bank, which has about 80 employees, had not developed precise and formal criteria for evaluating candidates for the positions for which Watson unsuccessfully applied. It relied instead on the subjective judgment of supervisors who were acquainted with the candidates and with the nature of the jobs to be filled. All the supervisors involved in denying Watson the four promotions at issue were white.

[ 487 U.S. Page 983]

     Watson filed a discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). After exhausting her administrative remedies, she filed this lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas. She alleged that the Bank had unlawfully discriminated against blacks in hiring, compensation, initial placement, promotions, terminations, and other terms and conditions of employment. On Watson's motion under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23, the District Court certified a class consisting of "blacks who applied to or were employed by [respondent] on or after October 21, 1979 or who may submit employment applications to [respondent] in the future." App. 190. The District Court later decertified this broad class because it concluded, in light of the evidence presented at trial, that there was not a common question of law or fact uniting the groups of applicants and employees. After splitting the class along this line, the court found that the class of black employees did not meet the numerosity requirement of Rule 23(a); accordingly, this subclass was decertified. The court also concluded that Watson was not an adequate representative of the applicant class because her promotion claims were not typical of the claims of the members of that group. Because Watson had proceeded zealously on behalf of the job applicants, however, the court went on to address the merits of their claims. It concluded that Watson had failed to establish a prima facie case of racial discrimination in hiring: the percentage of blacks in the Bank's work force approximated the percentage of blacks in the metropolitan area where the Bank is located. App. 199-202.

The District Court addressed Watson's individual claims under the evidentiary standards that apply in a discriminatory treatment case. See McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973), and Texas Dept. of Community Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248 (1981). It concluded, on the evidence presented at trial, that Watson had established a prima facie case of employment discrimination, but that the

[ 487 U.S. Page 984]

     Bank had met its rebuttal burden by presenting legitimate and nondiscriminatory reasons for each of the challenged promotion decisions. The court also concluded that Watson had failed to show that these reasons were pretexts for racial discrimination. Accordingly, the action was dismissed. App. 195-197, 203.

A divided panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed in part. 798 F.2d 791 (1986). The majority concluded that there was no abuse of discretion in the District Court's class decertification decisions. In order to avoid unfair prejudice to members of the class of black job applicants, however, the Court of Appeals vacated the portion of the judgment affecting them and remanded with instructions to dismiss those claims without prejudice. The majority affirmed the District Court's conclusion that Watson had failed to prove her claim of racial discrimination under the standards set out in McDonnell Douglas, supra, and Burdine, supra.*fn1

Watson argued that the District Court had erred in failing to apply "disparate impact" analysis to her claims of discrimination in promotion. Relying on Fifth Circuit precedent, the majority of the Court of Appeals panel held that "a Title VII challenge to an allegedly discretionary promotion system is properly analyzed under the disparate treatment model rather than the disparate impact model." 798 F.2d, at 797. Other Courts of Appeals have held that disparate impact analysis may be applied to hiring or promotion systems that involve the use of "discretionary" or "subjective" criteria. See, e. g., Atonio v. Wards Cove Packing Co., 810 F.2d 1477 (CA9) (en banc), on return to panel, 827 F.2d 439

[ 487 U.S. Page 985]

     (1987), cert denied, No. 87-1388, 485 U.S. 989 (1988), cert. pending, No. 87-1387; Griffin v. Carlin, 755 F.2d 1516, 1522-1525 (CA11 1985). Cf. Segar v. Smith, 238 U.S. App. D.C. 103, 738 F.2d 1249 (1984), cert. denied, 471 U.S. 1115 (1985). We granted certiorari to resolve the conflict. 483 U.S. 1004 (1987).

II

A

Section 703 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U. S. C. § 2000e-2, provides:

"(a) It shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer --

"(1) to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin; or

"(2) to limit, segregate, or classify his employees or applicants for employment in any way which would deprive or tend to deprive any individual of employment opportunities or otherwise adversely affect his status as an employee, because of such individual's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

"(h) Notwithstanding any other provision of this subchapter, it shall not be an unlawful employment practice for an employer . . . to give and to act upon the results of any professionally developed ability test provided that such test, its administration or action upon the results is not designed, intended or used to discriminate because of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. . . ."

Several of our decisions have dealt with the evidentiary standards that apply when an individual alleges that an employer has treated that particular person less favorably than

[ 487 U.S. Page 986]

     others because of the plaintiff's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. In such "disparate treatment" cases, which involve "the most easily understood type of discrimination," Teamsters v. United States, 431 U.S. 324, 335, n. 15 (1977), the plaintiff is required to prove that the defendant had a discriminatory intent or motive. In order to facilitate the orderly consideration of relevant evidence, we have devised a series of shifting evidentiary burdens that are "intended progressively to sharpen the inquiry into the elusive factual question of intentional discrimination." Texas Dept. of Community Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S., at 255, n. 8. Under that scheme, a prima facie case is ordinarily established by proof that the employer, after having rejected the plaintiff's application for a job or promotion, continued to seek applicants with qualifications similar to the plaintiff's. Id., at 253, and n. 6. The burden of proving a prima facie case is "not onerous," id., at 253, and the employer in turn may rebut it simply by producing some evidence that it had legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for the decision. Id., at 254-255. If the defendant carries this burden of production, the plaintiff must prove by a preponderance of all the evidence in the case that the legitimate reasons offered by the defendant were a pretext for discrimination. Id., at 253, 255, n. 10. We have cautioned that these shifting burdens are meant only to aid courts and litigants in arranging the presentation of evidence: "The ultimate burden of persuading the trier of fact that the defendant intentionally discriminated against the plaintiff remains at all times with the plaintiff." Id., at 253. See also United States Postal Service Bd. of Governors v. Aikens, 460 U.S. 711, 715 (1983).

In Griggs v. Duke Power Co., 401 U.S. 424 (1971), this Court held that a plaintiff need not necessarily prove intentional discrimination in order to establish that an employer has violated § 703. In certain cases, facially neutral employment practices that have significant adverse effects on protected groups have been held to violate the Act without proof

[ 487 U.S. Page 987]

     that the employer adopted those practices with a discriminatory intent. The factual issues and the character of the evidence are inevitably somewhat different when the plaintiff is exempted from the need to prove intentional discrimination. See Burdine, supra, at 252, n. 5; see also United States Postal Service Bd. of Governors v. Aikens, supra, at 713, n. 1; McDonnell Douglas, 411 U.S., at 802, n. 14; Teamsters, supra, at 335-336, n. 15. The evidence in these "disparate impact" cases usually focuses on statistical disparities, rather than specific incidents, and on competing explanations for those disparities.

The distinguishing features of the factual issues that typically dominate in disparate impact cases do not imply that the ultimate legal issue is different than in cases where disparate treatment analysis is used. See, e. g., Washington v. Davis, 426 U.S. 229, 253-254 (1976) (STEVENS, J., concurring). Nor do we think it is appropriate to hold a defendant liable for unintentional discrimination on the basis of less evidence than is required to prove intentional discrimination. Rather, the necessary premise of the disparate impact approach is that some employment practices, adopted without a deliberately discriminatory motive, may in operation be functionally equivalent to intentional discrimination.

Perhaps the most obvious examples of such functional equivalence have been found where facially neutral job requirements necessarily operated to perpetuate the effects of intentional discrimination that occurred before Title VII was enacted. In Griggs itself, for example, the employer had a history of overt racial discrimination that predated the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. 401 U.S., at 426-428. Such conduct had apparently ceased thereafter, but the employer continued to follow employment policies that had "a markedly disproportionate" adverse effect on blacks. Id., at 428-429. Cf. Teamsters, supra, at 349, and n. 32. The Griggs Court found that these policies, which involved the use of general aptitude tests and a high school diploma

[ 487 U.S. Page 988]

     requirement, were not demonstrably related to the jobs for which they were used. 401 U.S., at 431-432. Believing that diplomas and tests could become "masters of reality," id., at 433, which would perpetuate the effects of pre-Act discrimination, the Court concluded that such practices could not be defended simply on the basis of their facial neutrality or on the basis of the employer's lack of discriminatory intent.

[ 487 U.S. Page 989]

     This Court has repeatedly reaffirmed the principle that some facially neutral employment practices may violate Title VII even in the absence of a demonstrated discriminatory intent. We have not limited this principle to cases in which the challenged practice served to perpetuate the effects of pre-Act intentional discrimination. Each of our subsequent decisions, however, like Griggs itself, involved standardized employment tests or criteria. See, e. g., Albemarle Paper Co. v. Moody, 422 U.S. 405 (1975) (written aptitude tests); Washington v. Davis, supra (written test of verbal skills); Dothard v. Rawlinson, 433 U.S. 321 (1977) (height and weight requirements); New York City Transit Authority v. Beazer, 440 U.S. 568 (1979) (rule against employing drug addicts); Connecticut v. Teal, 457 U.S. 440 (1982) (written examination). In contrast, we have consistently used conventional disparate treatment theory, in which proof of intent to discriminate is required, to review hiring and promotion decisions that were based on the exercise of personal judgment or the application of inherently subjective criteria. See, e. g., McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, supra (discretionary decision not to rehire individual who engaged in criminal acts against employer while laid off); Furnco Construction Corp. v. Waters, 438 U.S. 567 (1978) (hiring decisions based on personal knowledge of candidates and recommendations); Texas Dept. of Community Affairs v. Burdine, supra (discretionary decision to fire individual who was said not to get along with co-workers); United States Postal Service Page 989} Bd. of Governors v. Aikens, 460 U.S., at 715 (discretionary promotion decision).

Our decisions have not addressed the question whether disparate impact analysis may be applied to cases in which subjective criteria are used to make employment decisions. As noted above, the Courts of Appeals are in conflict on the issue. In order to resolve this conflict, we must determine whether the reasons that support the use of disparate impact analysis apply to subjective employment practices, and whether such analysis can be applied in this new context under workable evidentiary standards.

B

The parties present us with stark and uninviting alternatives. Petitioner contends that subjective selection methods are at least as likely to have discriminatory effects as are the kind of objective tests at issue in Griggs and our other disparate impact cases. Furthermore, she argues, if disparate impact analysis is confined to objective tests, employers will be able to substitute subjective criteria having substantially identical effects, and Griggs will become a dead letter. Respondent and the United States (appearing as amicus curiae) argue that conventional disparate treatment analysis is adequate to accomplish Congress' purpose in enacting Title VII. They also argue that subjective ...


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