Hishon v. King & Spalding - 467 U.S. 69 (1984)
U.S. Supreme Court
Hishon v. King & Spalding, 467 U.S. 69 (1984)
Hishon v. King & Spalding
Argued October 31, 1983
Decided May 22, 1984
467 U.S. 69
Petitioner, a woman lawyer, was employed in 1972 as an associate with respondent law firm, a general partnership, but her employment was terminated in 1979 after respondent decided not to invite her to become a partner. Petitioner filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, claiming that respondent had discriminated against her on the basis of her sex in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. After the Commission issued a notice of right to sue, petitioner brought this action in Federal District Court under Title VII. Her complaint included allegations that respondent used the possibility of ultimate partnership as a recruiting device to induce her and other young lawyers to become associates at the firm; that respondent represented that advancement to partnership after five or six years was "a matter of course" for associates who received satisfactory evaluations, and that associates would be considered for partnership "on a fair and equal basis"; that she relied on these representations when she accepted employment with respondent; that respondent's promise to consider her on a "fair and equal basis" created a binding employment contract; and that respondent discriminated against her on the basis of her sex when it failed to invite her to become a partner. The District Court dismissed the complaint on the ground that Title VII was inapplicable to the selection of partners by a partnership, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.
Held: Petitioner's complaint states a claim cognizable under Title VII, and she therefore is entitled to her day in court to prove her allegations. Pp. 467 U. S. 73-79.
(a) Once a contractual employment relationship is established, the provisions of Title VII attach, forbidding unlawful discrimination as to the "terms, conditions, or privileges of employment," which clearly include benefits that are part of the employment contract. If the evidence at trial establishes petitioner's allegation that the parties contracted to have her considered for partnership, that promise clearly was a term, condition, or privilege of her employment. Independent of the alleged contract, Title VII would then bind respondent to consider petitioner for partnership as the statute provides, i.e., without regard to her sex. Moreover, an employer may provide its employees with benefits that it
is under no obligation to furnish by any express or implied contract. Such a benefit, though not a contractual right of employment, may qualify as a "privilege" of employment under Title VII that may not be granted or withheld in a discriminatory fashion. Pp. 467 U. S. 73-76.
(b) Even if respondent is correct in its assertion that a partnership invitation is not itself an offer of employment, Title VII would nonetheless apply. The benefit a plaintiff is denied need not be employment to fall within Title VII's protection; it need only be a term, condition, or privilege of employment. It is also of no consequence that employment as an associate necessarily ends upon elevation to partnership; a benefit need not accrue before a person's employment is completed to be a term, condition, or privilege of that employment relationship. Nor does the statute or its legislative history support a per se exemption of partnership decisions from scrutiny. And respondent has not shown how application of Title VII in this case would infringe its constitutional rights of expression or association. Moreover,
"[i]nvidious private discrimination may be characterized as a form of exercising freedom of association protected by the First Amendment, but it has never been accorded affirmative constitutional protections."
678 F.2d 1022, reversed and remanded.
BURGER, C.J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court. POWELL, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 467 U. S. 79.