10 Memorable Employment Discrimination Lawsuits in U.S. History

The United States has a common law system. For those unfamiliar, Britannica says this means judicial decisions are a source of law. As a result, common law systems can be found in a wide range of countries with significant English influence from one source or another. U.S. employment discrimination law has been shaped by lawsuit after lawsuit in much the same manner as the rest of U.S. law.

However, some of those lawsuits have been much more memorable than others for one reason or another. Here are 10 of the most memorable employment discrimination lawsuits in U.S. history:

10. California Department of Fair Employment and Housing v. Activision Blizzard

In July 2021, the state of California sued Activision Blizzard, claiming the latter widely discriminated against women. Unsurprisingly, some of this was in the form of lower compensation and slower promotions.

The state of California also claimed that Activision Blizzard allowed and even encouraged sexual misconduct directed toward its female employees. Numerous stories came out about these incidents.

For example, there were stories of cube crawls, which saw male employees making advances and even touching their female counterparts while going from cubicle to cubicle. Likewise, there was a female employee who committed suicide after being subjected to several days of sexual harassment, which included co-workers sharing nude photos at a holiday party.

On top of this, Activision Blizzard didn’t keep sexual harassment reports confidential, thus making retaliation possible. The lawsuit is still ongoing. Even so, the extensive reporting by The New York Times and other publications have caused some people to see it as a wake-up call for the video game industry, particularly since similar stories have been told about other major video game companies.

9. Dothard v. Rawlinson

Dothard v. Rawlinson is notable because it was the first time the bona fide occupational qualifications defense was used in a U.S. Supreme Court case. Generally speaking, people are protected from discrimination based on their age, sex, race, color, national origin, and religion in hiring.

However, US Legal says exceptions are allowed when these factors are necessary for a job’s essential duties. For example, a church can require a priest to belong to the right denomination because that is relevant to their essential duties. In contrast, a church can’t ask the same of a janitor because their religious beliefs have no relationship with their ability to do their job.

Moving on, Dothard v. Rawlinson happened in 1977 because Dianne Rawlinson sued over minimum requirements for prison guards in the state of Alabama. Specifically, they had to stand at least 5’2″ and weigh at least 120 pounds, which removed her from consideration for such positions.

After Rawlinson sued, the state of Alabama passed a law requiring prison guards to be the same sex as the inmates, so that became an issue as well. The lower court sided with her. Later, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the requirements for minimum height and minimum weight were discriminatory, while the requirement that prison guards be the same sex as the inmates was not.

8. Barnes v. Train

Barnes v. Train wasn’t as earthshaking as some of the other cases on this list. Even so, it stands out because it was the first example of a sexual harassment case in the United States, though it wasn’t labeled as such back in 1974.

In short, a woman named Paulette Barnes lost her job as a payroll clerk at the Environmental Protection Agency after she rejected a sexual advance from her supervisor. As a result, she sued because she believed that her job had been eliminated because of that rejection. Initially, the lawsuit was dismissed.

Fortunately, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit found that it was indeed sexual discrimination for a woman to lose her job because she had rejected a sexual advance from her supervisor. Moreover, it decided that employers were liable when they failed to stop sexual harassment they knew to be carried out by supervisors.

7. Robinson v. Shell Oil Co.

Robinson v. Shell Oil Co. is an example of the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court acting unanimously. For context, Charles Robinson was a Shell Oil Company employee who sued because he believed that he had been fired because he was black.

While the case was underway, he applied for a new job with a new company, which sought out his previous employer for a reference. Chances are good interested individuals can guess that the Shell Oil Company gave him a very poor evaluation. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission took a very dim view of this.

After all, if employers could lash out at former employees in this manner, that would greatly discourage people from coming forward about employment discrimination because of the potential consequences to their career prospects. Meanwhile, the Shell Oil Company argued that Robinson was no longer covered by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 because he was a former employee.

Luckily, the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court agreed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1997. Due to this, they made a unanimous ruling that employers are not allowed to retaliate against former employees who have made a complaint about workplace discrimination.

Without that, it isn’t hard to see why U.S. employees would be put in a much weaker position. On a related note, it is interesting to mention that Robinson didn’t win the original lawsuit alleging racial discrimination on the Shell Oil Company’s part.

6. Jenson v. Eveleth Taconite Co.

Jenson v. Eveleth Taconite Co. was also a sexual harassment lawsuit. In particular, MinnPost points out it stood out because it was the first class-action sexual harassment lawsuit to reach a U.S. federal court. The Eveleth Mines Forbes Fairlane Plant started hiring women as employees in the 1970s. The male miners developed a strong dislike of their female counterparts, thus resulting in a wide range of problematic behavior.

For example, some of the women were stalked. Similarly, they were subjected to unsolicited acts of physical intimacy. Complaints were made to the employer, which did little about it. Eventually, one woman named Lois Jensen submitted a complaint to the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, which was followed by someone slashing the wheels on her car just a week afterward.

In 1993, District Judge Richard Kyle ruled in the plaintiffs’ favor. Subsequently, he named the retired federal magistrate Patrick McNulty to oversee the hearing to determine monetary damages. McNulty let the mining company’s lawyers acquire the women’s full medical records, thus resulting in a long, unpleasant probing of their personal lives in thorough detail.

After which, McNulty awarded between $2,500 and $25,000 to each plaintiff. This was appealed. Kyle rejected the appeal, but the Eighth Circuit had other thoughts on the matter. There would have been another hearing to determine monetary damages, but this time around, the mining company chose to settle.

5. Bostock v. Clayton County

Interested individuals might remember Bostock v. Clayton County. That is because it is one of the more recent cases on this list, meaning they might have seen coverage by either the SCOTUSblog or other sources. Regardless, Bostock v. Clayton County was huge because it extended the protections of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to cover employees discriminated against for being either gay or transgender.

In 2013, Clayton County audited the funds controlled by its employee Gerald Bostock before firing him for conduct unbecoming of someone in his position. Bostock suspected the audit was a cover for firing him because he was gay. After all, he had just joined a gay softball league before talking about it at his workplace earlier that year.

As a result, Bostock sued. The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia dismissed Bostock’s case. Then, the Eleventh Circuit upheld that ruling. The issue was that this conflicted with the Second and Eleventh Circuits, so it wasn’t too long before the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case to settle things.

Ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled for Bostock 6 to 3 in 2020. The majority opinion was that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 covered employees discriminated against for being either gay or transgender because that counted as sex-based discrimination.

Essentially, the idea was that the employer was alright with certain behaviors from one sex but not with the same behaviors from another. Unsurprisingly, Bostock v. Clayton County is seen as one of the most consequential decisions for LGBT rights in the United States, so much so that it is often compared with Obergefell v. Hodges.

4. McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green

McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green gets mentioned because it had major consequences for the burden of proof plus the nature of proof in cases related to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Background-wise, Percy Green was a black employee of McDonnell Douglas, an aerospace company that merged with Boeing in 1997.

Green believed that his firing was motivated by his race. Due to this, he and others organized a protest that used cars to block roads to the aerospace company’s factories.

Subsequently, McDonnell Douglas posted a mechanic job, which Green applied for but was rejected because he participated in the protest. His response was to file a complaint. It would claim he had been treated unfairly because of his long-time involvement in the Civil Rights Movement.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously for Green in 1973. Furthermore, it created a framework for deciding employment discrimination cases in which there is only indirect evidence for what happened. First, the employee would need to show that discrimination had happened.

Second, the employer would need to show a non-discriminatory reason for its actions. Third, the employee would need to show that the employer’s reason is either insufficient or used one of the unlawful parameters. It isn’t a coincidence that the framework is outright called the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework.

3. Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins

The ICAEW states Price Waterhouse was one of the companies that merged to create PricewaterhouseCoopers in 1998. Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins saw a woman named Ann Hopkins suing her former employer, Price Waterhouse for denying her partnership because she didn’t fit the partners’ idea of what a woman should act like and look like.

At one point, a supervisor outright told her that she needed to act, walk, dress, and otherwise behave in a more feminine manner if she wanted the promotion. The lower courts ruled in her favor. However, they sent the case to the U.S. Supreme Court for a judicial review because they disagreed about the expectations placed upon the employer when it came to proving its case. Primarily, Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins is remembered for a couple of reasons.

One, it made it very clear that gender stereotyping counted as sex-based discrimination. Two, it established mixed-motive discrimination as a kind of discrimination that fell under the purview of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

2. Griggs v. Duke Power Co.

Griggs v. Duke Power Co. determined that aptitude tests used in hiring with a disparate impact on ethnic minorities needed to have a reasonable relationship to the duties of the job.

The lawsuit happened because one of Duke Power’s power plants had aptitude tests making it unreasonably difficult for black employees to enter any department other than the lowest-paying department. Indeed, the power plant added two aptitude tests to make it possible for people to go from the lowest-paying department to one of the others.

Theoretically, this was an improvement from before because they could pass the aptitude tests even without a high school diploma. This was the previous requirement. In practice, the aptitude tests were very much weighed against black employees, which was on top of how one of them was an IQ test rather than anything related to their expected responsibilities.

The U.S. Supreme Court criticized the practice for being false equality of opportunity in much the same sense as the Aesopian fable called the Fox and the Crane.

1. Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson

Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson was the case that established sexual harassment as workplace discrimination. In 1974, Michelle Vinson was hired as a teller-trainee at Capitol City Federal Savings and Loans Association. It would later be renamed Meritor Savings Bank in 1985.

She sued because her supervisor had forced her to have sexual relations with him. This was in addition to several incidences of forcible rape and other misdeeds. Every single justice on the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a hostile work environment could count as a kind of discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

That was huge because workplace discrimination had been defined as economic loss before Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson. As such, the ruling brought about a sizable expansion in what people could sue for under it.

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