Anderson v. City of Bessemer,
470 U.S. 564 (1985)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Anderson v. City of Bessemer, 470 U.S. 564 (1985)

Anderson v. City of Bessemer

No. 83-1623

Argued December 3, 1984

Decided March 19, 1985

470 U.S. 564


In 1975, respondent city set about to hire a new Recreation Director to manage the city's recreational facilities and to develop recreational programs. A committee, consisting of four men and one woman, was responsible for choosing the Director. Eight persons applied for the position, including petitioner, the only woman applicant. At the time, petitioner was a 39-year-old schoolteacher with college degrees in social studies and education. The committee offered the position to a 24-year-old male applicant, who had recently graduated from college with a degree in physical education. The four men on the committee voted to offer the job to him, and only the woman voted for petitioner. Petitioner then filed discrimination charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which, upon finding that there was reasonable cause to believe that petitioner's charges were true, invited the parties to engage in conciliation proceedings. When these efforts proved unsuccessful, the EEOC issued petitioner a right-to-sue letter, and she filed an action in Federal District Court under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. After a trial in which testimony from petitioner, the applicant who was hired, and members of the selection committee was heard, the court issued a memorandum announcing its finding that petitioner was entitled to judgment because she had been denied the position on account of her sex. The memorandum requested petitioner to submit proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law expanding upon those set forth in the memorandum. When petitioner complied with this request, the court requested and received a response setting forth respondent's objections to the proposed findings. The court then issued its own findings of fact and conclusions of law. The court's finding that petitioner had been denied employment because of her sex was based on findings of fact that she was the most qualified candidate, that she had been asked questions during her interview regarding her spouse's feelings about her application for the position that other applicants were not asked, and that the male committee members were biased against hiring a woman. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the District Court's findings were clearly erroneous and that the court had therefore erred in finding that petitioner had been discriminated against on account of sex.

Page 470 U. S. 565

Held: The Court of Appeals misapprehended and misapplied the clearly erroneous standard, and accordingly erred in denying petitioner relief under Title VII. Pp. 470 U. S. 571-581.

(a) Where the District Court did not simply adopt petitioner's proposed findings, but provided respondent with an opportunity to respond to those findings, and the findings ultimately issued varied considerably from those proposed by petitioner, there is no reason to doubt that the ultimate findings represented the court's own considered conclusions or to subject those findings to a more stringent appellate review than is called for by the applicable rules. Pp. 470 U. S. 571-573.

(b) Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 52(a) -- which provides that

"[f]indings of fact shall not be set aside unless clearly erroneous, and due regard shall be given to the opportunity of the trial court to judge of the credibility of the witness"


"[a] finding is 'clearly erroneous' when, although there is evidence to support it, the reviewing court on the entire evidence is left with a definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed."

United States v. United States Gypsum Co., 333 U. S. 364, 333 U. S. 394-395. If the district court's account of the evidence is plausible in light of the record viewed in its entirety, the court of appeals may not reverse it even though convinced that, had it been sitting as the trier of fact, it would have weighed the evidence differently. This is so even when the district court's findings do not rest on credibility determinations, but are based on physical or documentary evidence or inferences from other facts. When findings are based on determinations regarding the credibility of witnesses, Rule 52(a) demands even greater deference to the trial court's finding. Pp. 470 U. S. 573-576.

(c) Application of the above principles to the facts of this case discloses that the Court of Appeals erred in its employment of the clearly erroneous standard. The District Court's finding that petitioner was better qualified was entitled to deference, notwithstanding it was not based on credibility determinations, and the record contains nothing that mandates a holding that the finding was clearly erroneous. As to the District Court's finding that petitioner was the only applicant asked questions regarding her spouse's feelings about her application for the position, the Court of Appeals erred in failing to give due regard to the District Court's ability to interpret and discern the credibility of oral testimony, especially that of the woman member of the selection committee, whose testimony the District Court felt supported the finding. Given that that finding was not clearly erroneous, the District Court's finding of bias cannot be termed erroneous. It is supported not only by the treatment of petitioner in her interview but also by the testimony of one committee member that he believed it would have been difficult for a woman to perform the job, and by evidence that another member solicited applications only from men. Because the findings on which the

Page 470 U. S. 566

District Court based its finding of sex discrimination were not clearly erroneous, its finding of discrimination was also not clearly erroneous. Pp. 470 U. S. 576-581.

717 F.2d 149, reversed.

WHITE, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and BRENNAN, MARSHALL, POWELL, REHNQUIST, STEVENS, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. POWELL, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 470 U. S. 581. BLACKMUN, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 470 U. S. 581.

Primary Holding

An appellate court cannot disturb a lower court's findings of fact if there is evidence to support them unless it is firmly convinced after reviewing the entire record that it made a mistake.


Anderson brought a discrimination claim against Bessemer City based on Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, arguing that the city had denied her a position as Recreation Director in a city athletic program because she was a woman. The lower court found in a memorandum of decision that she had been denied the position because of her sex and that the men on the Bessemer City hiring commission for the position were biased against her for that reason. On appeal, the Fourth Circuit threw out the memorandum of decision, ruling that it was clearly erroneous.



  • Byron Raymond White (Author)
  • Warren Earl Burger
  • William Joseph Brennan, Jr.
  • Thurgood Marshall
  • Lewis Franklin Powell, Jr.
  • William Hubbs Rehnquist
  • John Paul Stevens
  • Sandra Day O'Connor

The Fourth Circuit essentially reviewed all of the evidence in the record de novo, which is not permitted under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 52(a). The evidence had not been disputed in the lower court, and it was reasonable to conclude that the plaintiff was better qualified than the male applicants for the same position. She had a stronger educational and employment background as well as greater relevant experience. It is impossible to say that the lower court clearly erred in making these findings.


  • Lewis Franklin Powell, Jr. (Author)


  • Harry Andrew Blackmun (Author)

Case Commentary

Errors by a lower court will not result in a reversal unless they fall within the appropriate scope for a higher court to review. Judgments of witness veracity generally are best made by a trial judge rather than judges who did not see the witnesses in person.

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