490 U.S. 900 (1989), 87-1428, Lorance v. AT&T Technologies, Inc.

Docket Nº:No. 87-1428
Citation:490 U.S. 900, 109 S.Ct. 2261, 104 L.Ed.2d 961, 57 U.S.L.W. 4654
Party Name:Lorance v. AT&T Technologies, Inc.
Case Date:June 12, 1989
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 900

490 U.S. 900 (1989)

109 S.Ct. 2261, 104 L.Ed.2d 961, 57 U.S.L.W. 4654

Lorance

v.

AT&T Technologies, Inc.

No. 87-1428

United States Supreme Court

June 12, 1989

Argued March 20, 1989

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR

THE SEVENTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

Before 1979, collective bargaining agreements between respondents AT&T Technologies, Inc., and Local 1942, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, AFL-CIO, had determined a worker's seniority on the basis of years of plantwide service, and plantwide seniority was transferable upon promotion to a more skilled "tester" position. A new agreement executed in 1979 changed this by making seniority in tester jobs dependent upon the [109 S.Ct. 2263] amount of time spent as a tester. In 1982, petitioners -- women employees who were promoted to tester positions between 1978 and 1980 -- received demotions that they would not have sustained had the former seniority system remained in place. They filed charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1983, and, after receiving right-to-sue letters, filed the present action in the District Court, alleging that respondents had violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by adopting the new seniority system with the purpose and effect of protecting incumbent testers -- jobs traditionally dominated by men -- from female employees who had greater plantwide seniority and who were becoming testers in increasing numbers. The court granted summary judgment for respondents on the ground that the charges had not been filed within the required period "after the alleged unlawful employment practice occurred," § 706(e) of Title VII, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(e), and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held: Under § 703(h) of Title VII, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(h), the operation of a seniority system having a disparate impact on men and women is not unlawful unless discriminatory intent is proved. E.g., Pullman-Standard v. Swint, 456 U.S. 273, 289; American Tobacco Co. v. Patterson, 456 U.S. 63, 65, 69; Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, 432 U.S. 63, 82. It is not disputed that the seniority system at issue is facially nondiscriminatory (treats similarly situated employees alike) and is nondiscriminatorily applied. Its alleged invalidity rests on the claim that intentional discrimination produced the unfavorable change in petitioners' contractual seniority rights when respondents adopted the new system in 1979. The limitations period under § 706(e) therefore commenced at that point. Delaware State College v. Ricks, 449 U.S. 250; United Air Lines, Inc. v. Evans, 431 U.S. 553. This rule strikes a balance

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between the interest in having valid claims vindicated and the interest in not adjudicating stale claims, which is heightened in this context by the special reliance interests that are protected by seniority systems. Pp. 904-913.

827 F.2d 163, affirmed.

SCALIA, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and WHITE, STEVENS, and KENNEDY, JJ., joined. STEVENS, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 913. MARSHALL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined, post, p. 913. O'CONNOR, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

SCALIA, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE SCALIA delivered the opinion of the Court.

Respondent AT&T Technologies, Inc. (AT&T) manufactures electronics products at its Montgomery Works plant. The three petitioners, all of whom are women, have worked as hourly wage employees in that facility since the early 1970's, and have been represented by respondent Local 1942, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, AFL-CIO. Until 1979, all hourly wage earners accrued competitive seniority exclusively on the basis of years spent in the plant,

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and a worker promoted to the more highly skilled and better paid "tester" positions retained this plantwide seniority. A collective bargaining agreement executed by respondents on July 23, 1979, altered the manner of calculating tester seniority.1 Thenceforth a tester's seniority was to be determined [109 S.Ct. 2264] not by length of plantwide service, but by time actually spent as a tester (though it was possible to regain full plantwide seniority after spending 5 years as a tester and completing a prescribed training program). The present action arises from that contractual modification.

Petitioners became testers between 1978 and 1980. During a 1982 economic downturn, their low seniority under the 1979 collective bargaining agreement caused them to be selected for demotion; they would not have been demoted had the former plantwide seniority system remained in place. Claiming that the present seniority system was the product of an intent to discriminate on the basis of sex, petitioners filed complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in April, 1983. After the EEOC issued right-to-sue letters, petitioners in September, 1983, filed the present lawsuit in the District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, and sought certification as class representatives for women employees of AT&T's Montgomery Works plant who had lost plantwide seniority or whom the new system had deterred from seeking promotions to tester positions. Their complaint alleged that, among hourly wage earners, the tester positions had traditionally been held almost exclusively by men, and nontester positions principally by women, but that, in the 1970's, an increasing number of women took the steps necessary to qualify for tester positions

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and exercised their seniority rights to become testers. They claimed that the 1979 alteration of the rules governing tester seniority was the product of a

conspir[acy] to change the seniority rules in order to protect incumbent male testers and to discourage women from promoting into the traditionally-male tester jobs,

and that

[t]he purpose and the effect of this manipulation of seniority rules has been to protect male testers from the effects of the female testers' greater plant seniority, and to discourage women from entering the traditionally-male tester jobs.

App. 20, 21-22.

On August 27, 1986, before deciding whether to certify the proposed class, the District Court granted respondents' motion for summary judgment on the ground that petitioners had not filed their complaints with the EEOC within the applicable limitations period.2 44 FEP Cases 1817, 1821 (ND Ill.). A divided panel of the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed, concluding that petitioners' claims were time-barred because

the relevant discriminatory act that triggers the period of limitations occurs at the time an employee becomes subject to a facially-neutral but discriminatory seniority system that the employee knows, or reasonably should know, is discriminatory.

827 F.2d 163, 167 (1987). We granted certiorari, 488 U.S. 887 (1988), to resolve a Circuit conflict on when the limitations period begins to run in a lawsuit arising out of a seniority system not alleged to be discriminatory on its face or as presently applied. Compare, e.g., case below, with Cook v. Pan American

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World Airways, 771 F.2d 635, 646 (CA2 1985), cert. denied, 474 U.S. 1109 (1986).

Section 706(e) of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 78 Stat. 260, as amended, provides that "[a] charge . . . shall be filed [with the EEOC] within [the applicable period] after the alleged unlawful employment practice occurred." 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(e). [109 S.Ct. 2265] Assessing timeliness therefore "requires us to identify precisely the `unlawful employment practice' of which [petitioners] complai[n]." Delaware State College v. Ricks, 449 U.S. 250, 257 (1980). Under § 703(a) of Title VII, it is an "unlawful employment practice" for an employer

(1) . . . to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin; or

(2) to limit, segregate, or classify his employees or applicants for employment in any way which would deprive or tend to deprive any individual of employment opportunities or otherwise adversely affect his status as an employee, because of such individual's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

42 U.S.C. § 2000e2(a).

Petitioners' allegation of a disparate impact on men and women would ordinarily suffice to state a claim under § 703(a)(2), since that provision reaches "practices that are fair in form, but discriminatory in operation," Griggs v. Duke Power Co., 401 U.S. 424, 431 (1971); see Connecticut v. Teal, 457 U.S. 440, 446 (1982). "[S]eniority systems," however, "are afforded special treatment under Title VII," Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, 432 U.S. 63, 81 (1977), by reason of § 703(h), which states:

Notwithstanding any other provision of this subchapter, it shall not be an unlawful employment practice for an employer to apply different standards of compensation,

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or different terms, conditions, or privileges of employment pursuant to a bona fide seniority . . . system, . . . provided that such differences are not the result of an intention to discriminate because of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. . . .

42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(h). We have construed this provision to mean that,

absent a discriminatory purpose, the operation of a seniority system cannot be an unlawful employment practice even if the system has some discriminatory consequences.

Hardison, supra, at 82; see American Tobacco Co. v. Patterson, 456 U.S. 63, 65, 69 (1982). Thus, for liability to be incurred

there must be a finding of actual intent to discriminate on [statutorily proscribed]...

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