Research Proposal: Employment Discrimination

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Workplace Discrimination

Jurisprudence in Workplace Discrimination: Defining Discrimination in Griggs v. Duke and Beyond

Laws are seldom as finite and concrete as they are often perceived by the public and portrayed in the media. They are often somewhat ambiguous, even purposefully so, in order to achieve greater justice. This might at first seem counter-intuitive; the greater the ambiguity in the law, the more room there might be to breach that law, but in reality some amount of ambiguity is necessary in order to ensure that the gray areas of human activity have recourse to something other than the black and white lettering of the law. This something else is jurisprudence, the ability for judges to determine exactly how the ambiguities of the law fit certain cases. Through jurisprudence, laws are refined and become more clearly defined, but are also able to change and adapt as circumstances warrant.

One very important area of jurisprudence in the United States since the latter half of the twentieth century, and especially since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, has been the issue of workplace discrimination. Slews of cases have been brought to the courts, including many that have made their way to the Supreme Court, the final arbiter of law in the United States, involving alleged discrimination by a defendant that does not necessarily disagree about the specifics of the conduct involved, but about the definition of that conduct as discriminatory. That is, these cases have been brought before the courts in order to determine exactly what behaviors constitute unlawful discrimination in the workplace; though discrimination is illegal, the legal definition of discrimination is not explicitly clear.

A landmark case in this area is Griggs v. Duke Power Co. (1971). Though the defendant had not engaged in actions that were explicitly or even solely discriminatory towards racial minorities (specifically African-Americans), the Court found that the company's actions were in fact discriminatory based on their interpretation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. A very different yet similarly-based ruling was made in Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson (1986), which determined that discrimination with intangible results was still illegal conduct. Another case from the same year, Johnson v. Transportation Agency (1986), had very different effects on the issue of workplace discrimination and its legality. Each of these cases is examined in detail and in relation to each other below in order to provide an understanding of current workplace discrimination law.

Griggs v Duke Power Co (1971)

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination in the workplace and in other spheres on the basis of gender, race, religion, nationality, and other factors. As clear as the prohibitions of the Civil Rights Act seem, however, they were not actually spelled out explicitly. There were many instances where abuses still continued through the invocation of perceived legal loopholes, and there was often very little that authorities could -- or would -- do about these situations until the law had been more clearly defined. There were several potential cases that helped to shape the law into a more concrete shape, but one of the most influential of these cases to reach the Supreme Court and lead to a comprehensive reassessment of the Civil Rights Act was Griggs v Duke Power Co. (1971).

The Duke Power Company had had, until 1964, a policy of segregation in its workforce that prevented African-Americans from working in any capacity other than in the Labor Department, which had the lowest paying positions in the company. After the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the company changed its policy, requiring a high school diploma and a certain minimum score on two different aptitude tests in order to work in any other department (Oyez: Griggs 2009). A much higher proportion of African-Americans did not have high school diplomas and were generally less educated 9 and therefore less likely to achieve the minimum score on the aptitude test), so Duke Power Company's new policies had largely the same effect as their old overtly discriminatory policy of segregation, despite circumventing what they felt to be the letter (and scope) of the law.

Willie Griggs filed a class action suit on behalf of himself and other African-American employees claiming that the Duke Power Company's transfer, promotion, and hiring practices (all of which were subject to the new educational requirements) were discriminatory and therefore illegal. The first district court the suit was brought to dismissed the case on its face, and the Court of Appeals reviewed the case and found that no discriminatory practice was taking place (Oyez: Griggs 2009). The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, however, and ended up overturning the Court of Appeals ruling. Given that the law in question in this case was an Act of Congress, the Supreme Court is the only court with sufficient power to come to a ruling that significantly expands the application and understanding of the Act, but its decisions had ramifications for all lower courts.

Essentially, the Supreme Court based their rulings on the fact that the new diploma and aptitude test requirements had a racially disproportionate effect in hiring and promotion practices without there being any work-related need for these requirements (Oyez: Griggs 2009). That is, had there been a work-related reason for the requirements -- for example, had the aptitude tests directly and solely measured the ability to perform jobs in specific sectors -- the practice would not have been deemed discriminatory even if it resulted in a racial bias. As it was, however, there was no practical rationale for these requirements, and the Court even explicitly found that the purpose of these requirements was the continuation of discriminatory practices that had long been in place at the Duke Power Company without any other value whatsoever (Oyez: Griggs 2009).

Meritor Savings Banks v Vinson (1986)

In another case fifteen years later, a very different case led to a very similar broadening of the interpretation and application of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in the area of workplace discrimination. The U.S. Supreme Court case Meritor Savings Bank v Vinson (1986) was the result of a suit brought by the respondent, Mechelle Vinson, against her employer, Meritor Savings Bank, after she had been terminated from her position there following an extended sick leave (FindLaw 2009). Vinson had been promoted several times during her four years of employment at the bank, and t was not disputed that she had been awarded these promotions based on her merits, but Vinson claimed she had also been the subject of intense sexual harassment by her boss, Sidney Taylor (FindLaw 2009).

As in the Griggs case, several lower courts had come to conflicting rulings regarding this case, and it made its way to the Supreme Court for a determination as to the actual applicability of the law on the case's situation. Taylor denied the claims of harassment, but a lower court determined that the conflicting versions of events were not even relevant; as there had been no economic or tangible effect of the alleged harassment, Vinson had no recourse through the law, and furthermore the bank itself could not be held responsible for the situation -- if there was a situation -- as it had never been made aware of Taylor's alleged actions (FindLaw 2009). The Court of Appeals reversed both decisions, asserting that the creation of a "hostile environment" was a result sufficient to deem an act harassment under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Meirtor Savings Bank appealed the case to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court upheld the Court of Appeals' ruling, and seems to have heard the case largely to make more certain and permanent the interpretation of the Civil Rights Act as protecting against the tangible and intangible effects of workplace discrimination (FindLaw 2009). The Court did not explicitly rule on the issue of the bank's liability for Taylor's actions (and thus did not comment on institutional responsibility generally), but it did hold that the language of the Civil Rights Act did not limit its scope only to the tangible effects of discrimination, but also to the creation of hostile working environments. The Court found further substantiation for this interpretation in the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's direct and explicit specification that the Civil Rights Act did apply to discrimination resulting in a hostile working environment (FindLaw 2009).

Just as the Court held in Griggs v Duke Power Company (1971) that the scope of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was not limited to acts of over discrimination, but rather included any act of which the primary results were discriminatory, it held in Meritor Savings Bank v Vinson that it was no limited to acts of discrimination or harassment that resulted in tangible detriments. he first case, that is, broadened and made more clear the acts that counted as discriminatory, and the second case broadened and made more concrete the effects of these acts that were actionable in the courts. Through these acts of jurisprudence, the Supreme… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Cite This Research Proposal:

APA Format

Employment Discrimination.  (2009, December 11).  Retrieved May 23, 2019, from

MLA Format

"Employment Discrimination."  11 December 2009.  Web.  23 May 2019. <>.

Chicago Format

"Employment Discrimination."  December 11, 2009.  Accessed May 23, 2019.