Wards Cove Packing Co. v. Atonio
United States federal courts have held, since the Civil Rights Act of 1964, that employment policies which create a disparate impact on different racial groups of workers are illegal. In Wards Cove Packing Co. v. Atonio, a 1989 case, workers in an Alaskan salmon cannery sued over a policy that they believed violated the disparate impact doctrine. The case would go all the way to the Supreme Court, which would rule on whether the way the appeals court made a disparate impact determination was correct.
The Discrimination Allegation
There were two types of employment positions at the Wards Cove Packing Company, which canned salmon in a small Alaska town. Cannery jobs were low-paying, high-stress, and involved manual labor and unskilled tasks. Non-cannery jobs paid substantially more than the cannery jobs and tended to involve significantly more skilled labor than the cannery jobs did.
The discrimination complaint in Wards Cove Packing Co. v. Antonio started because many non-white employees of Wards Cove noticed that cannery employees were almost exclusively hired from the area's Alaskan Native population and other non-white groups residing in the area, like Filipinos. Non-cannery employees, on the other hand, were nearly exclusively white.
District and Circuit Court Findings
At the initial trial court level, the federal district court found no discrimination and ruled in favor of Wards Cove. However, once the case got to the Circuit Court, it was reversed. The Circuit Court ruled that the plaintiffs had shown evidence of a disparate impact, based on nothing more than looking at the percentages of skilled versus unskilled positions filled by white and nonwhite employees.
Unwilling to accept the result that had occurred in the Circuit Court, Wards Cove appealed, starting the Supreme Court case of Wards Cove Packing Co. v. Atonio.
Supreme Court Decision
The Supreme Court decided in Wards Cove Packing Co. v. Atonio that the Circuit Court had made an error when it decided that the percentages of white and non-white workers in each job type was prima facie evidence of a disparate impact. The reason that this was insufficient, according to the Supreme Court, was that the workers had made no attempt to show whether the cannery jobs were actually being disproportionately given to non-white workers based on the average skill levels of white or non-white workers. If, for instance, it had turned out that 90% of white workers in the town were college educated (not the case, but if it had been), while only 10% of non-white workers had a post-secondary educational background, the disparate impact might simply reflect this difference rather than racial bias.
While Wards Cove Packing Co. v. Atonio made it substantially harder for workers to win workplace discrimination lawsuits, this did not last for very long. In 1991, just two years after the Wards Cove case was decided at the Supreme Court level, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1991, which put the burden of proof back on employers for showing that a disparate impact was caused by something other than illegal racial discrimination.