Today in 1989: SCOTUS rules that gender stereotyping can be sex discrimination

May 1, 2015

Today in Legal HistoryThis past term, the Supreme Court decided the landmark sex discrimination case Young v. UPS, which dealt with workplace accommodations for pregnant women.

Employer sex discrimination lawsuits are not a recent phenomenon, with such disputes reaching the Supreme Court decades in the past.  One such case is Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, decided May 1, 1989.

The facts of the case begin when the plaintiff, Ann Hopkins, was proposed as a partnership candidate by the partners in accounting firm Price Waterhouse’s Office of Government Services in Washington, D.C. in 1982.  She had worked there for five years at the time, and had “played a key role in Price Waterhouse’s successful effort to win a multi-million dollar contract with the Department of State.”  In fact, the district court judge noted that “[n]one of the other partnership candidates at Price Waterhouse that year had a comparable record in terms of successfully securing major contracts for the partnership.”

Despite these accolades, Hopkins’ candidacy was placed on “hold” until the next year.  The reason for this largely had to do with issues that some partners had with Hopkins demeanor.  One partner described her as “macho,” another suggested that she “overcompensated for being a woman,” while yet another suggested that she take “a course at charm school.”  The final straw, however, came from the individual responsible for explaining to Hopkins the reasons for the decision to place her candidacy on hold: in order to improve her chances for partnership, this person advised Hopkins to “walk more femininely, talk more femininely, dress more femininely, wear make-up, have her hair styled, and wear jewelry.”

After Hopkins was informed that she would no longer be considered for partnership the following year, she resigned and filed suit against the firm for sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  The trial court ruled in her favor, as did the court of appeals, who both found that Price Waterhouse had unlawfully discriminated against Hopkins on the basis of sex “by consciously giving credence and effect to partners’ comments about her that resulted from sex stereotyping.”

The Supreme Court agreed to review the case, but while it technically sided with Hopkins, it nevertheless reversed and remanded the case because both lower courts had held “an employer who has allowed a discriminatory motive to play a part in an employment decision must prove by clear and convincing evidence that it would have made the same decision in the absence of discrimination [emphasis added].”  The Supreme Court ruled that only a preponderance of the evidence standard is necessary, thereby lowering the evidentiary burden for employers in these discrimination cases.

Although the reduction in the employer’s evidentiary burden may seem like a setback for workers with claims of discrimination, Price Waterhouse offers an important win for these individuals, in that the ruling represents the first instance that the Supreme Court recognized gender stereotyping as being actionable sex discrimination.

Furthermore, it’s important to note that, because of the Civil Rights Act of 1991 – which was enacted partly in response to this decision – an employer demonstrating that it would have made the same employment decision in the absence of discrimination is no longer completely shielded from liability – as it would have when Price Waterhouse was decided.  Instead, making that showing only defended the employer against backpay, reinstatement, or other monetary damages, but it could still be liable for attorney’s fees.

Finally, the ruling is an important milestone in the timeline of employer sex discrimination cases, with the factual background of the decision showcasing gender stereotyping that was once far more common in the American workplace.