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Ward's Cove Packing Co. v. Atonio


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490 U.S. 642 (1989), argued 18 Jan. 1989, decided 5 June 1989 by vote of 5 to 4; White for the Court, Stevens (joined by Brennan, Marshall, and Blackmun) and Blackmun (joined by Brennan and Marshall) in dissent. Plaintiffs alleging employment discrimination in Alaskan salmon canneries showed a high percentage of nonwhite workers in low-paying jobs and a low percentage of nonwhite workers in high-paying jobs. The nonwhite workers relied on this disproportion in the workforce to help establish a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Supreme Court held that the comparison between the racial composition of the high-and low-paying jobs was flawed because the data failed to take into account the pool of qualified job applicants.

Three additional rulings in Ward's Cove overshadowed this holding and arguably shifted legal standards in favor of Title VII defendants. First, building on Watson v. Fort Worth Bank and Trust (1988), the Court held that, in Title VII disparate-impact cases, plaintiffs must show which specific employment practice led to the statistical disparity. Second, even if plaintiffs make a satisfactory statistical showing, if defendants supply a business justification for the practice, the ultimate burden of persuading the decision maker that discrimination occurred rests with the plaintiffs. Third, the business justification offered by the defendants must show that the “challenged practice serves, in a significant way, the legitimate employment goals of the employer” (p. 659). Ward's Cove was overturned by the Civil Rights Act of 1991, which shifted the burden of proof back to the employers, thereby making it easier for plaintiffs to win employment discrimination suits.

Theodore Eisenberg

Subjects: Law.


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