Ford Motor Company v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, No. 81-300

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtO'CONNOR
Citation102 S.Ct. 3057,458 U.S. 219,73 L.Ed.2d 721
Docket NumberNo. 81-300
Decision Date28 June 1982
PartiesFORD MOTOR COMPANY, Petitioner v. EQUAL EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITY COMMISSION

458 U.S. 219
102 S.Ct. 3057
73 L.Ed.2d 721
FORD MOTOR COMPANY, Petitioner

v.

EQUAL EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITY COMMISSION.

No. 81-300.
Argued April 20, 1982.
Decided June 28, 1982.
Syllabus

Held : An employer charged with discrimination in hiring under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 can toll the continuing accrual of backpay liability under § 706(g) of Title VII by unconditionally offering the claimant the job previously denied, and is not required to offer seniority retroactive to the date of the alleged discrimination. Thus, absent special circumstances, the rejection of an employer's unconditional job offer ends the accrual of potential back pay liability. Pp. 225-241.

(a) This rule serves Title VII's objective of ending discrimination through voluntary compliance, for it gives the employer a strong incentive to hire the claimant. To require a retroactive seniority offer in addition to the unconditional job offer fails to provide the same incentive, because it makes hiring the claimant more costly than hiring another applicant for the same job. Pp. 228-230.

(b) An unemployed or underemployed claimant's statutory obligation to minimize damages under § 706(g) requires him to accept an unconditional job offer, even without retroactive seniority. The rule announced here merely embodies such requirement of minimizing damages, without affecting the claimant's right to compensation. Pp. 230-234.

(c) The rule announced here also is consistent with the policy of full compensation when the claimant has had the good fortune to find a more attractive job than that offered by the employer charged with discrimination, because the availability of the better job terminates the ongoing ill effect of the latter's refusal to hire the claimant. Pp. 234-236.

(d) Since the rule announced here rests both on the statutory requirement that a claimant minimize damages and on the fact that he no longer incurs additional injury if he has been able to find other work at least as attractive as the charged employer's, the rule in almost all circumstances is consistent with Title VII's object of making injured claimants whole. Pp.236-239

(e) To require a retroactive seniority offer in addition to the unconditional job offer would threaten the interests of innocent incumbent employees by disrupting the established seniority hierarchy, with the attendant risk that an innocent employee would be unfairly laid off or

Page 220

disadvantaged because a Title VII claimant has been granted seniority. Pp. 239-240.

645 F.2d 183 (4th Cir.), reversed and remanded.

John R. Wester, Charlotte, N. C., for petitioner.

David A. Strauss, Washington, D. C., for respondent, pro hac vice, by special leave of Court.

Justice O'CONNOR delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case presents the question whether an employer charged with discrimination in hiring can toll the continuing accrual of backpay liability under § 706(g) of Title VII, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(g), simply by unconditionally offering the claimant the job previously denied, or whether the employer also must offer seniority retroactive to the date of the alleged discrimination.1

Page 221

The question has considerable practical significance because of the lengthy delays that too often attend Title VII litigation.2 The extended time it frequently takes to obtain satisfaction in the courts may force a discrimination claimant to suffer through years of underemployment or unemployment before being awarded the job the claimant deserves. Court delays, of course, affect all litigants. But for the victim of job discrimination, delay is especially unfortunate. The claimant cannot afford to stand aside while the wheels of justice grind slowly toward the ultimate resolution of the lawsuit. The claimant needs work that will feed a family and restore self-respect. A job is needed—now. In this case, therefore, we must determine how best to fashion the remedies available under Title VII to fulfill this basic need.

I
A.

In June and July 1971, Judy Gaddis, Rebecca Starr, and Zettie Smith applied at a Ford Motor Co. (Ford) parts warehouse located in Charlotte, N.C., for jobs as "picker-packers," "picking" ordered parts from storage, and "packing" them for shipment. At the time, no woman had ever worked in that capacity at the Ford warehouse. All three women

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were qualified for the positions: Gaddis and Starr recently had been laid off from equivalent jobs at a nearby General Motors (GM) warehouse, and Smith had comparable prior experience. Smith applied before any of the openings were filled, and Gaddis and Starr applied while at least two positions remained available.3 Ford, however, filled the three vacant positions with men, and Gaddis filed a charge with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), claiming that Ford had discriminated against her because of her sex.4

In January 1973, GM recalled Gaddis and Starr to their former positions at its warehouse. The following July, while they were still working at GM, a single vacancy opened up at Ford. Ford offered the job to Gaddis, without seniority retroactive to her 1971 application. Ford's offer, however, did not require Gaddis to abandon or compromise her Title VII claim against Ford. Gaddis did not accept the job, in part because she did not want to be the only woman working at the warehouse, and in part because she did not want to lose the seniority she had earned at GM. Ford then made the same unconditional offer to Starr, who declined for the same reasons. Gaddis and Starr continued to work at the GM warehouse, but in 1974 the warehouse was closed and they were laid off. They then unsuccessfully sought new employment until September 1975, when they entered a Government training program for the unemployed.

Smith applied again for work at Ford in 1973, but was never hired. She worked elsewhere, though at lower wages

Page 223

than she would have earned at Ford, during much of the time between 1971 and the District Court's decision in 1977.

In contrast to Gaddis', Starr's, and Smith's difficulties, at least two of the three men hired by Ford in 1971 were still working at the warehouse at the time of the trial in 1977.

B

In July 1975, the EEOC sued Ford in the United States District Court for the Western District of North Carolina, alleging that Ford had violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 78 Stat. 253, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. (1976 ed. and Supp.IV), by refusing to hire women at the Charlotte warehouse. The Commission sought injunctive relief and backpay for the victims.5

After trial, the District Court found that Ford had discriminated against the three women on the basis of their sex and awarded them backpay in an amount equal to "the difference between the amount they would have earned had they been hired in August 1971, and the amounts actually earned or reasonably earnable by them" between that date and the date of the court's order. App. to Pet. for Cert. A-170. The District Court rejected Ford's contention that Gaddis and Starr were not entitled to backpay accruing after the dates on which they declined Ford's offer of employment. Id., at A-170 to A-171.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed the District Court's finding of unlawful discrimination, as well as the court's award to Gaddis and Starr of backpay that had accrued after July 1973, when the women rejected Ford's unconditional job offer. 645 F.2d 183 (1981). The court suggested that, had Ford promised retroactive seniority with its job offer, the offer would have cut off

Page 224

Ford's backpay liability. The court concluded, however, that without the promise of retroactive seniority, Ford's 1973 offer was "incomplete and unacceptable." Id., at 193.6

Ford then petitioned this Court for a writ of certiorari, contending, inter alia, that its unconditional job offer to Gaddis and Starr should have cut off the further accrual of backpay liability.7 We granted the writ. 454 U.S. 1030, 102 S.Ct. 565, 70 L.Ed.2d 473 (1981).

Page 225

II

Section 706(g) of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 78 Stat. 261, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(g), governs the award of backpay in Title VII cases. In pertinent part, § 706(g) provides:

"If the court finds that the respondent has intentionally engaged in or is intentionally engaging in an unlawful employment practice charged in the complaint, the

Page 226

court may enjoin the respondent from engaging in such unlawful employment practice, and order such affirmative action as may be appropriate, which may include, but is not limited to, . . . hiring of employees, with or without back pay, . . . or any other equitable relief as the court deems appropriate. . . . Interim earnings or amounts earnable with reasonable diligence by the person or persons discriminated against shall operate to reduce the back pay otherwise allowable" (emphasis added).8

Under § 706(g), then, "backpay is not an automatic or mandatory remedy; . . . it is one which the courts 'may' invoke" in the exercise of their sound "discretion [which] is equitable in nature." Albemarle Paper Co. v. Moody, 422 U.S. 405, 415, 416, 95 S.Ct. 2362, 2370, 2371, 45 L.Ed.2d 280 (1975). Nonetheless, while "the power to award backpay is a discretionary power," id., at 447, 95 S.Ct., at 2389 (BLACKMUN, J., concurring in judgment), a "court must exercise this power 'in light of the large objectives of the Act,' " and, in doing so, must be guided by "meaningful standards" enforced by "thorough appellate review." Id., at 416, 95 S.Ct., at 2371 (opinion of the Court) (citations omitted). Moreover, as we emphasized in Albemarle Paper, in Title VII cases

"such discretionary choices are not left to a court's 'inclination, but to its judgment; and its judgment is to

Page 227

be guided by sound legal principles.' United States v. Burr, 25 F.Cas. 30, 35 (No. 14,692d)...

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