Landgraf v. United Statesi Film Prods.

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Citation114 S.Ct. 1483,511 U.S. 244,128 L.Ed.2d 229,62 U.S.L.W. 4255
Docket NumberNo. 92-757,92-757
Decision Date26 April 1994

511 U.S. 244
114 S.Ct. 1483
128 L.Ed.2d 229
62 U.S.L.W. 4255


No. 92-757

United States Supreme Court

Argued October 13, 1993
April 26, 1994



After a bench trial in petitioner Landgraf's suit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII), the District Court found that she had been sexually harassed by a co-worker at respondent USI Film Products, but that the harassment was not so severe as to justify her decision to resign her position. Because the court found that her employment was not terminated in violation of Title VII, she was not entitled to equitable relief, and because Title VII did not then authorize any other form of relief, the court dismissed her complaint. While her appeal was pending, the Civil Rights Act of 1991 (1991 Act or Act) became law, § 102 of which includes provisions that create a right to recover compensatory and punitive damages for intentional discrimination violative of Title VII (hereinafter § 102(a)), and authorize any party to demand a jury trial if such damages are claimed (hereinafter § 102(c)). In affirming, the Court of Appeals rejected Landgraf's argument that her case should be remanded for a jury trial on damages pursuant to § 102.


Section 102 does not apply to a Title VII case that was pending on appeal when the 1991 Act was enacted. Pp. 250-286.
(a) Since the President vetoed a 1990 version of the Act on the ground, among others, of perceived unfairness in the bill's elaborate retroactivity provision, it is likely that the omission of comparable language in the 1991 Act was not congressional oversight or unawareness, but was a compromise that made the Act possible. That omission is not dispositive here because it does not establish precisely where the compromise was struck. For example, a decision to reach only cases still pending, and not those already finally decided, might explain Congress' failure to provide in the 1991 Act, as it had in the 1990 bill, that certain sections would apply to proceedings pending on specified preenactment dates. Pp. 250-257.
(b) The text of the 1991 Act does not evince any clear expression of congressional intent as to whether § 102 applies to cases arising before the Act's passage. The provisions on which Landgraf relies for such an expression- § 402(a), which states that, "[e]xcept as otherwise specifically provided, this Act and the amendments made by this Act shall take effect upon enactment," and §§ 402(b) and 109(c), which provide for prospective application in limited contexts-cannot bear the heavy

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weight she would place upon them by negative inference: Her statutory argument would require the Court to assume that Congress chose a surprisingly indirect route to convey an important and easily expressed message. Moreover, the relevant legislative history reveals little to suggest that Members of Congress believed that an agreement had been tacitly reached on the controversial retroactivity issue or that Congress understood or intended the interplay of the foregoing sections to have the decisive effect Landgraf assigns them. Instead, the history conveys the impression that legislators agreed to disagree about whether and to what extent the Act would apply to preenactment conduct. Pp. 257-263.
(c) In order to resolve the question left open by the 1991 Act, this Court must focus on the apparent tension between two seemingly contradictory canons for interpreting statutes that do not specify their temporal reach: the rule that a court must apply the law in effect at the time it renders its decision, see Bradley v. School Bd. of Richmond, 416 U.S. 696, 711, and the axiom that statutory retroactivity is not favored, see Bowen v. Georgetown Univ. Hospital, 488 U.S. 204, 208. Pp. 263-265.
(d) The presumption against statutory retroactivity is founded upon elementary considerations of fairness dictating that individuals should have an opportunity to know what the law is and to conform their conduct accordingly. It is deeply rooted in this Court's jurisprudence and finds expression in several constitutional provisions, including, in the criminal context, the Ex Post Facto Clause. In the civil context, prospectivity remains the appropriate default rule unless Congress has made clear its intent to disrupt settled expectations. Pp. 265-273.
(e) Thus, when a case implicates a federal statute enacted after the events giving rise to the suit, a court's first task is to determine whether Congress has expressly prescribed the statute's proper reach. If Congress has done so, there is no need to resort to judicial default rules. Where the statute in question unambiguously applies to preenactment conduct, there is no conflict between the antiretroactivity presumption and the principle that a court should apply the law in effect at the time of decision. Even absent specific legislative authorization, application of a new statute to cases arising before its enactment is unquestionably proper in many situations. However, where the new statute would have a genuinely retroactive effect- i.e., where it would impair rights a party possessed when he acted, increase his liability for past conduct, or impose new duties with respect to transactions already completed- the traditional presumption teaches that the statute does not govern absent clear congressional intent favoring such a result. Bradley did not displace the traditional presumption. Pp. 273-280.

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(f) Application of the foregoing principles demonstrates that, absent guiding instructions from Congress, § 102 is not the type of provision that should govern cases arising before its enactment, but is instead subject to the presumption against statutory retroactivity. Section 102(b)(1), which authorizes punitive damages in certain circumstances, is clearly subject to the presumption, since the very labels given "punitive" or "exemplary" damages, as well as the rationales supporting them, demonstrate that they share key characteristics of criminal sanctions, and therefore would raise a serious question under the Ex Post Facto Clause if retroactively imposed. While the § 102(a)(1) provision authorizing compensatory damages is not so easily classified, it is also subject to the presumption, since it confers a new right to monetary relief on persons like Landgraf, who were victims of a hostile work environment but were not constructively discharged, and substantially increases the liability of their employers for the harms they caused, and thus would operate "retrospectively" if applied to preenactment conduct. Although a jury trial right is ordinarily a procedural change of the sort that would govern in trials conducted after its effective date regardless of when the underlying conduct occurred, the jury trial option set out in § 102(c)(1) must fall with the attached damages provisions because § 102(c) makes a jury trial available only "[i]f a complaining party seeks compensatory or punitive damages." Pp. 280-286.

968 F.2d 427, affirmed.

Stevens, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and O'Connor, Souter, and Ginsburg, JJ., joined. Scalia, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which Kennedy and Thomas, JJ., joined, post, p. 286. Blackmun, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 294.

Eric Schnapper argued the cause for petitioner. On the briefs were Paul C. Saunders, Timothy B. Garrigan, Richard T. Seymour, and Sharon R. Vinick.

Solicitor General Days argued the cause for the United States et al. as amici curiae urging reversal. On the brief were Acting Solicitor General Bryson, Acting Assistant Attorney General Turner, Deputy Solicitor General Wallace, Robert A. Long, Jr., David K. Flynn, Dennis J. Dimsey, Rebecca K. Troth, and Donald R. Livingston.

Page 247

Glen D. Nager argued the cause for respondents. On the brief was David N. Shane.*

Justice Stevens delivered the opinion of the Court.

The Civil Rights Act of 1991 (1991 Act or Act) creates a right to recover compensatory and punitive damages for certain violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. See Rev. Stat. § 1977A(a), 42 U.S.C. § 1981a(a) (1988 ed., Supp. IV), as added by § 102 of the 1991 Act, Pub. L. 102-166, 105 Stat. 1072. The Act further provides that any party may demand a trial by jury if such damages are sought.1 We granted certiorari to decide whether these provisions apply to a Title VII case that was pending on appeal when the statute was enacted. We hold that they do not.


From September 4, 1984, through January 17, 1986, petitioner Barbara Landgraf was employed in the USI Film

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Products (USI) plant in Tyler, Texas. She worked the 11p.m. to 7 a.m. shift operating a machine that produced plastic bags. A fellow employee named John Williams repeatedly harassed her with inappropriate remarks and physical contact. Petitioner's complaints to her immediate supervisor brought her no relief, but when she reported the incidents to the personnel manager, he conducted an investigation, reprimanded Williams, and transferred him to another department. Four days later petitioner quit her job.

Petitioner filed a timely charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC or Commission). The Commission determined that petitioner had likely been the victim of sexual harassment creating a hostile work environment in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., but concluded that her employer had adequately remedied the violation. Accordingly, the Commission dismissed the charge and issued a notice of right to sue.

On July 21, 1989, petitioner commenced this action against USI, its corporate owner, and that company's successor in interest.2 After a bench trial, the District Court found that Williams had sexually harassed petitioner causing her to suffer mental anguish. However, the court concluded that she...

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1 cases
  • Landgraf v. United Statesi Film Prods.
    • United States
    • United States Supreme Court
    • April 26, 1994
    ...511 U.S. 244114 S.Ct. 1483128 L.Ed.2d 22962 U.S.L.W. 4255LANDGRAF v. USI FILM PRODUCTS et al.No. 92-757United States Supreme CourtArgued October 13, 1993April 26, 1994 CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FIFTH CIRCUIT SyllabusAfter a bench trial in petitioner Landgraf's......

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