Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins
490 U.S. 228 (1989)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, 490 U.S. 228 (1989)

Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins

No. 87-1167

Argued October 31, 1988

Decided May 1, 1989

490 U.S. 228


Respondent was a senior manager in an office of petitioner professional accounting partnership when she was proposed for partnership in 1982. She was neither offered nor denied partnership, but instead her candidacy was held for reconsideration the following year. When the partners in her office later refused to repropose her for partnership, she sued petitioner in Federal District Court under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, charging that it had discriminated against her on the basis of sex in its partnership decisions. The District Court ruled in respondent's favor on the question of liability, holding that petitioner had unlawfully discriminated against her on the basis of sex by consciously giving credence and effect to partners' comments about her that resulted from sex stereotyping. The Court of Appeals affirmed. Both courts held that an employer who has allowed a discriminatory motive to play a part in an employment decision must prove by clear and convincing evidence that it would have made the same decision in the absence of discrimination, and that petitioner had not carried this burden.

Held: The judgment is reversed, and the case is remanded.

263 U.S.App.D.C. 321, 825 F.2d 458, reversed and remanded.

JUSTICE BRENNAN, joined by JUSTICE MARSHALL, JUSTICE BLACKMUN, and JUSTICE STEVENS, concluded that, when a plaintiff in a Title VII case proves that her gender played a part in an employment decision, the defendant may avoid a finding of liability by proving by a preponderance of the evidence that it would have made the same decision even if it had not taken the plaintiff's gender into account. The courts below erred by requiring petitioner to make its proof by clear and convincing evidence. Pp. 490 U. S. 237-258.

(a) The balance between employee rights and employer prerogatives established by Title VII by eliminating certain bases for distinguishing among employees, while otherwise preserving employers' freedom of choice, is decisive in this case. The words "because of" in § 703(a)(1) of the Act, which forbids an employer to make an adverse decision against an employee "because of such individual's . . . sex," requires looking at all of the reasons, both legitimate and illegitimate, contributing to the decision at the time it is made. The preservation of employers' freedom of choice means that an employer will not be liable if it can prove that, if

Page 490 U. S. 229

it had not taken gender into account, it would have come to the same decision. This Court's prior decisions demonstrate that the plaintiff who shows that an impermissible motive played a motivating part in an adverse employment decision thereby places the burden on the defendant to show that it would have made the same decision in the absence of the unlawful motive. Here, petitioner may not meet its burden by merely showing that respondent's interpersonal problems -- abrasiveness with staff members -- constituted a legitimate reason for denying her partnership; instead, petitioner must show that its legitimate reason, standing alone, would have induced petitioner to deny respondent partnership. Pp. 490 U. S. 239-252.

(b) Conventional rules of civil litigation generally apply in Title VII cases, and one of these rules is that the parties need only prove their case by a preponderance of the evidence. Pp. 490 U. S. 252-255.

(c) The District Court's finding that sex stereotyping was permitted to play a part in evaluating respondent as a candidate for partnership was not clearly erroneous. This finding is not undermined by the fact that many of the suspect comments made about respondent were made by partners who were supporters, rather than detractors. Pp. 490 U. S. 255-258.

JUSTICE WHITE, although concluding that the Court of Appeals erred in requiring petitioner to prove by clear and convincing evidence that it would have reached the same employment decision in the absence of the improper motive, rather than merely requiring proof by a preponderance of the evidence, as in Mt. Healthy City Bd. of Ed. v. Doyle, 429 U. S. 274, which sets forth the proper approach to causation in this case, also concluded that the plurality here errs in seeming to require, at least in most cases, that the employer carry its burden by submitting objective evidence that the same result would have occurred absent the unlawful motivation. In a mixed-motives case, where the legitimate motive found would have been ample grounds for the action taken, and the employer credibly testifies that the action would have been taken for the legitimate reasons alone, this should be ample proof, and there is no special requirement of objective evidence. This would even more plainly be the case where the employer denies any illegitimate motive in the first place, but the court finds that illegitimate, as well as legitimate, factors motivated the adverse action. Pp. 490 U. S. 258-261.

JUSTICE O'CONNOR, although agreeing that, on the facts of this case, the burden of persuasion should shift to petitioner to demonstrate by a preponderance of the evidence that it would have reached the same decision absent consideration of respondent's gender, and that this burden shift is properly part of the liability phase of the litigation, concluded that the plurality misreads Title VII's substantive causation requirement to command burden-shifting if the employer's decisional process is

Page 490 U. S. 230

"tainted" by awareness of sex or race in any way, and thereby effectively eliminates the requirement. JUSTICE O'CONNOR also concluded that the burden-shifting rule should be limited to cases, such as the present, in which the employer has created uncertainty as to causation by knowingly giving substantial weight to an impermissible criterion. Pp. 490 U. S. 261-279.

(a) Contrary to the plurality's conclusion, Title VII's plain language making it unlawful for an employer to undertake an adverse employment action "because of" prohibited factors and the statute's legislative history demonstrate that a substantive violation only occurs when consideration of an illegitimate criterion is the "but-for" cause of the adverse action. However, nothing in the language, history, or purpose of the statute prohibits adoption of an evidentiary rule which places the burden of persuasion on the defendant to demonstrate that legitimate concerns would have justified an adverse employment action where the plaintiff has convinced the factfinder that a forbidden factor played a substantial role in the employment decision. Such a rule has been adopted in tort and other analogous types of cases, where leaving the burden of proof on the plaintiff to prove "but-for" causation would be unfair or contrary to the deterrent purposes embodied in the concept of duty of care. Pp. 490 U. S. 262-269.

(b) Although the burden-shifting rule adopted here departs from the careful framework established by McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U. S. 792, and Texas Dept. of Community Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U. S. 248 -- which clearly contemplate that an individual disparate treatment plaintiff bears the burden of persuasion throughout the litigation -- that departure is justified in cases, such as the present, where the plaintiff, having presented direct evidence that the employer placed substantial, though unquantifiable, reliance on a forbidden factor in making an employment decision, has taken her proof as far as it could go, such that it is appropriate to require the defendant, which has created the uncertainty as to causation by considering the illegitimate criterion, to show that its decision would have been justified by wholly legitimate concerns. Moreover, a rule shifting the burden in these circumstances will not conflict with other Title VII policies, particularly its prohibition on preferential treatment based on prohibited factors. Watson v. Fort Worth Bank & Trust, 487 U. S. 977, distinguished. Pp. 490 U. S. 270-276.

(c) Thus, in order to justify shifting the burden on the causation issue to the defendant, a disparate treatment plaintiff must show by direct evidence that decisionmakers placed substantial negative reliance on an illegitimate criterion in reaching their decision. Such a showing entitles the factfinder to presume that the employer's discriminatory animus made a difference in the outcome, and, if the employer fails to carry its burden of persuasion, to conclude that the employer's decision was made "because of " consideration of the illegitimate factor, thereby satisfying

Page 490 U. S. 231

the substantive standard for liability under Title VII. This burden-shifting rule supplements the McDonnell Douglas-Burdine framework, which continues to apply where the plaintiff has failed to satisfy the threshold standard set forth herein. Pp. 490 U. S. 276-279.

BRENNAN, J., announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. WHITE, J., post, p. 490 U. S. 258, and O'CONNOR, J., post, p. 490 U. S. 261, filed opinions concurring in the judgment. KENNEDY, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and SCALIA, J., joined, post, p. 490 U. S. 279.

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Primary Holding

Discrimination against an employee on the basis of sex stereotyping--that is, a person's nonconformity to social or other expectations of that person's gender--constitutes impermissible sex discrimination, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The employer bears the burden of proving that the adverse employment action would have been the same if sex discrimination had not occurred.

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