401 U.S. 424 (1971), argued 14 Dec. 1970, decided 8 Mar. 1971 by vote of 8 to 0; Burger for the Court, Brennan not participating. Griggs is recognized as the most significant case in the development of employment discrimination law under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It provided new definitions of job discrimination that had far-reaching consequences.
The district court found that prior to the effective date of Title VII, the company discriminated on the basis of race in the hiring and assigning of workers at its facility in Draper, North Carolina. The company's longstanding practice was to hire blacks into an all-black labor classification where the highest paying job paid less than the lowest paying job in the all-white departments. Job promotion was based upon racial lines of progression within segregated departments. On 2 July 1965, the date on which Title VII became effective, the company established a new policy of requiring applicants for jobs in the traditional white classifications, including those who wished to transfer from other departments, to score acceptable grades on two aptitude tests in addition to fulfilling the requirement of a high school education. The district court held that the earlier practices “were beyond the reach” of Title VII and that the new tests were not intentionally discriminatory.
The Supreme Court overruled and held in favor of the black plaintiffs. It noted the systematic nature of employment discrimination and that Title VII was intended to eliminate such patterns of discrimination; thus the act required the removal of all barriers perpetuating the benefits that white employees obtain at the expense of blacks. Ostensibly neutral practices are unlawful, according to the Court, if they operate to maintain the effects of past discrimination.
The Court held further that intent or discriminatory purpose is irrelevant; it is consequences that matter. Tests used for hiring and promotion must be job related and validated under Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidelines.
Finally the Court held invalid practices, however neutral in intent, that caused a disparate impact upon a group protected by the act. The Griggs disparate impact concept was based on the Court's construction of section 702 (a) (2) of Title VII and has been successfully invoked in many contexts. Although Title VII law has continued to evolve and the burden of proof had shifted to plaintiffs, the basic holdings of Griggs remain valid.
In Ward's Cove Packing Co. v. Atonio (1989), the Court in a 5-to-4 decision revised the standards governing proof of discrimination in Title VII disparate impact cases. Under the standard established in Griggs, the burden was upon the employer to prove that any disparate impact caused by his practices was justified by business necessity. Under the standards required in Ward's Cove, the burden of proof remains with the plaintiff at all times. In Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins (1989), the Court shifted the burden of proof, holding that a disparate treatment plaintiff must demonstrate by direct evidence that employment practices substantially depended on illegitimate criteria. The Civil Rights Act of 1991 altered the burden once again.