Wards Cove Packing Co. v. Atonio, 490 U.S. 642 (1989)

U.S. Supreme Court

Wards Cove Packing v. Atonio, 490 U.S. 642 (1989)

Wards Cove Packing Co., Inc. v. Atonio

No. 87-1387

Argued January 18, 1989

Decided June 5, 1989

490 U.S. 642


Jobs at petitioners' Alaskan salmon canneries are of two general types: unskilled "cannery jobs" on the cannery lines, which are filled predominantly by nonwhites; and "noncannery jobs," most of which are classified as skilled positions and filled predominantly with white workers, and virtually all of which pay more than cannery positions. Respondents, a class of nonwhite cannery workers at petitioners' facilities, filed suit in the District Court under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, alleging, inter alia, that various of petitioners' hiring/promotion practices were responsible for the workforce's racial stratification and had denied them employment as noncannery workers on the basis of race. The District Court rejected respondents' claims, finding, among other things, that nonwhite workers were overrepresented in cannery jobs because many of those jobs were filled under a hiring hall agreement with a predominantly nonwhite union. The Court of Appeals ultimately reversed in pertinent part, holding, inter alia, that respondents had made out a prima facie case of disparate impact in hiring for both skilled and unskilled noncannery jobs, relying solely on respondents' statistics showing a high percentage of nonwhite workers in cannery jobs and a low percentage of such workers in noncannery positions. The court also concluded that, once a plaintiff class has shown disparate impact caused by specific, identifiable employment practices or criteria, the burden shifts to the employer to prove the challenged practice's business necessity.


1. The Court of Appeals erred in ruling that a comparison of the percentage of cannery workers who are nonwhite and the percentage of noncannery workers who are nonwhite makes out a prima facie disparate impact case. Rather, the proper comparison is generally between the racial composition of the at-issue jobs and the racial composition of the qualified population in the relevant labor market. Hazelwood School Dist. v. United States, 433 U. S. 299, 433 U. S. 308. With respect to the skilled noncannery jobs at issue, the cannery workforce in no way reflected the pool of job applicants or the qualified labor force population. Petitioners' selection methods or employment practices cannot be said to have had a disparate impact on nonwhites if

Page 490 U. S. 643

the absence of minorities holding such skilled jobs reflects a dearth of qualified nonwhite applicants for reasons that are not petitioners' fault. With respect to the unskilled noncannery jobs, as long as there are no barriers or practices deterring qualified nonwhites from applying, the employer's selection mechanism probably does not have a disparate impact on minorities if the percentage of selected nonwhite applicants is not significantly less than the percentage of qualified nonwhite applicants. Where this is the case, the percentage of nonwhite workers found in other positions in the employer's labor force is irrelevant to a prima facie statistical disparate impact case. Moreover, isolating the cannery workers as the potential labor force for unskilled noncannery jobs is both too broad -- because the majority of cannery workers did not seek noncannery jobs -- and too narrow -- because there are many qualified persons in the relevant labor market who are not cannery workers. Under the Court of Appeals' method of comparison, any employer having a racially imbalanced segment of its workforce could be haled into court and made to undertake the expensive and time-consuming task of defending the business necessity of its selection methods. For many employers, the only practicable option would be the adoption of racial quotas, which has been rejected by this Court and by Congress in drafting Title VII. The Court of Appeals' theory is also flawed because, if minorities are overrepresented in cannery jobs by virtue of petitioners' having contracted with a predominantly nonwhite union to fill those positions, as the District Court found, petitioners could eliminate respondents' prima facie case simply by ceasing to use the union, without making any change whatsoever in their hiring practices for the noncannery positions at issue. Pp. 490 U. S. 650-655.

2. On remand for a determination whether the record will support a prima facie disparate impact case on some basis other than the racial disparity between cannery and noncannery workers, a mere showing that nonwhites are underrepresented in the at-issue jobs in a manner that is acceptable under the standards set forth herein will not alone suffice. Rather, the courts below must also require, as part of respondents' prima facie case, a demonstration that the statistical disparity complained of is the result of one or more of the employment practices respondents are attacking here, specifically showing that each challenged practice has a significantly disparate impact on employment opportunities for whites and nonwhites. This specific causation requirement is not unduly burdensome, since liberal discovery rules give plaintiffs broad access to employers' records, and since employers falling within the scope of the Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures must maintain records disclosing the impact of tests and selection procedures

Page 490 U. S. 644

on employment opportunities of persons by identifiable race, sex, or ethnic group. Pp. 490 U. S. 656-658.

3. If, on remand, respondents establish a prima facie disparate impact case with respect to any of petitioners' practices, the burden of producing evidence of a legitimate business justification for those practices will shift to petitioners, but the burden of persuasion will remain with respondents at all times. This rule conforms with the usual method for allocating persuasion and production burdens in the federal courts and with the rule in disparate treatment cases that the plaintiff bears the burden of disproving an employer's assertion that the adverse employment practice was based solely on a legitimate, neutral consideration. See Texas Dept. of Community Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U. S. 248, 450 U. S. 256-258. To the extent that some of this Court's decisions speak of an employer's "burden of proof" with respect to the business justification defense, they should be understood to mean an employer's burden of production, not persuasion. Even if respondents cannot persuade the trier of fact on the business necessity question, they may still prevail by coming forward with alternatives that reduce the disparate impact of petitioners' current practices, provided such alternatives are equally effective in achieving petitioners' legitimate employment goals in light of the alternatives' costs and other burdens. Pp. 490 U. S. 658-661.

827 F.2d 439, reversed and remanded.

WHITE, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C. J., and O'CONNOR, SCALIA, and KENNEDY, JJ., joined. BLACKMUN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN and MARSHALL, JJ., joined, post, p. 490 U. S. 661. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN, MARSHALL, and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined, post, p. 490 U. S. 662.

Page 490 U. S. 645

Disclaimer: Official Supreme Court case law is only found in the print version of the United States Reports. Justia case law is provided for general informational purposes only, and may not reflect current legal developments, verdicts or settlements. We make no warranties or guarantees about the accuracy, completeness, or adequacy of the information contained on this site or information linked to from this site. Please check official sources.

Justia Annotations is a forum for attorneys to summarize, comment on, and analyze case law published on our site. Justia makes no guarantees or warranties that the annotations are accurate or reflect the current state of law, and no annotation is intended to be, nor should it be construed as, legal advice. Contacting Justia or any attorney through this site, via web form, email, or otherwise, does not create an attorney-client relationship.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.