Today in 1971: The Supreme Court decides its first Title VII sex discrimination case

January 25, 2013

Today in Legal HistoryOn July 2, 1964, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law.

The Act broadly prohibits discrimination on the basis of “an individual’s race, color, religion, sex or national origin.”

Less than six months after its enactment, the Supreme Court upheld the use of the 1964 Act to compel businesses to serve customers of all racial backgrounds in Heart of Atlanta Motel v. U.S..

Today, however, the Act is not used primarily to enforce desegregation; instead, it is primarily used to prevent discrimination by government agencies that receive federal funds and by private employers (in an industry affecting commerce and who have fifteen or more employees); the former prohibition is found in Title VI of the Act, while the latter is found in Title VII.

Title VII in particular is heavily in use today, with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the agency responsible for enforcement of Title VII, receiving over 100,000 complaints in 2011.

The Supreme Court has also heard a great deal of Title VII discrimination cases (with one being on its docket for its current term).

Forty-two years ago today, the Supreme Court decided the first of these Title VII discrimination cases: Phillips v. Martin Marietta Corp.

Phillips was brought by a woman, Ida Phillips, against an employer, Martin Marietta Corporation (now Lockheed Martin), who, she claimed, denied her employment on account of her sex.

Specifically, Phillips claimed that she was denied employment because Martin had a policy of “not accepting job applications from women with pre-school-age children,” a classification that applied to Phillips.

The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Martin, finding that, because “70-75% of the applicants for the position [Phillips] sought were women” and that “75-80% of those hired for the position…were women,” there was no question of bias against women presented by Phillips’ complaint; the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.

The Supreme Court, however, in a per curiam opinion, found that, since Martin’s policy against hiring individuals with pre-school-age children did not apply to men, there was, indeed, a question of bias presented by the complaint.

The Court additionally held, though, that it could fall into the exemptions of the statute, which allow discrimination in “certain instances where religion, sex, or national origin is a bona fide occupational qualification reasonably necessary to the normal operation of that particular business or enterprise.”

Since there was not enough evidence on the record to make that determination, the case was remanded for further proceedings.

In other words, had there been sufficient evidence that Martin’s policy was “reasonably necessary to the normal operation” of its business (i.e., women with pre-school-age children are more likely to stay home to take care of the kids than similarly situated men), the discrimination could have been upheld.

This possibility is likely the reason for Justice Thurgood Marshall’s concurrence, in which he warned that “the Court has fallen into the trap of assuming that the Act permits ancient canards about the proper role of women to be a basis for discrimination.”

As such, Marshall disagreed with the Court’s finding that a “bona fide occupational qualification” could be established in this case, instead concluding that “when performance characteristics of an individual are involved, even when parental roles are concerned, employment opportunity may be limited only by employment criteria that are neutral as to the sex of the applicant.”

Although it’s not entirely clear what happened to the case on remand, nor whether courts have ever recognized a bona fide occupation qualification relating to sex discrimination and parental roles, the EEOC’s current enforcement policies on the matter seem to side with Justice Marshall’s assessment:

EEOC’s policy forbids employers from using one hiring policy for women with small children and a different policy for males with children of a similar age.

Of course, there have been plenty of other Supreme Court rulings since Phillips to further develop EEOC enforcement policies, but Phillips nonetheless retains the distinction of being the first Title VII ruling made by the Supreme Court.