McDonnell Douglas Corporation v. Green

Decision Date14 May 1973
Docket NumberNo. 72,72
PartiesMcDONNELL DOUGLAS CORPORATION, Petitioner, v. Percy GREEN. —490
CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Syllabus

Respondent, a black civil rights activist, engaged in disruptive and illegal activity against petitioner as part of his protest that his discharge as an employee of petitioner's and the firm's general hiring practices were racially motivated. When petitioner, who subsequently advertised for qualified personnel, rejected respondent's re-employment application on the ground of the illegal conduct, respondent filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) charging violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The EEOC found that there was reasonable cause to believe that petitioner's rejection of respondent violated § 704(a) of the Act, which forbids discrimination against applicants or employees for attempting to protest or correct allegedly discriminatory employment conditions, but made no finding on respondent's allegation that petitioner had also violated § 703(a) (1), which prohibits discrimination in any employment decision. Following unsuccessful EEOC conciliation efforts, respondent brought suit in the District Court, which ruled that respondent's illegal activity was not protected by § 704(a) and dismissed the § 703(a)(1) claim because the EEOC had made no finding with respect thereto. The Court of Appeals affirmed the § 704(a) ruling, but reversed with respect to § 703(a)(1), holding that an EEOC determination of reasonable cause was not a jurisdictional prerequisite to claiming a violation of that provision in federal court. Held:

1. A complainant's right to bring suit under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is not confined to charges as to which the EEOC has made a reasonable-cause finding, and the District Court's error in holding to the contrary was not harmless since the issues raised with respect to § 703(a)(1) were not identical to those with respect to § 704(a) and the dismissal of the former charge may have prejudiced respondent's efforts at trial. Pp. 798—800.

2. In a private, non-class-action complaint under Title VII charging racial employment discrimination, the complainant has the burden of establishing a prima facie case, which he can satisfy by showing that (i) he belongs to a racial minority; (ii) he applied and was qualified for a job the employer was trying to fill; (iii) though qualified, he was rejected; and (iv) thereafter the employer continued to seek applicants with complainant's qualifications. P. 802.

3. Here, the Court of Appeals, though correctly holding that respondent proved a prima facie case, erred in holding that petitioner had not discharged its burden of proof in rebuttal by showing that its stated reason for the rehiring refusal was based on respondent's illegal activity. But on remand respondent must be afforded a fair opportunity of proving that petitioner's stated reason was just a pretext for a racially discriminatory decision, such as by showing that whites engaging in similar illegal activity were retained or hired by petitioner. Other evidence that may be relevant, depending on the circumstances, could include facts that petitioner had discriminated against respondent when he was an employee or followed a discriminatory policy toward Minority employees. Pp. 802—805.

8 Cir., 463 F.2d 337, vacated and remanded.

Veryl L. Riddle, St. Louis, Mo., for petitioner.

Louis Gilden, St. Louis, Mo., for respondent.

Mr. Justice POWELL delivered the opinion of the Court.

The case before us raises significant questions as to the proper order and nature of proof in actions under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 78 Stat. 253, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq.

Petitioner, McDonnell Douglas Corp., is an aerospace and aircraft manufacturer headquartered in St. Louis, Missouri, where it employs over 30,000 people. Respondent, a black citizen of St. Louis, worked for petitioner as a mechanic and laboratory technician from 1956 until August 28, 19641 when he was laid off in the course of a general reduction in petitioner's work force.

Respondent, a long-time activist in the civil rights movement, protested vigorously that his discharge and the general hiring practices of petitioner were racially motivated.2 As part of this protest, respondent and other members of the Congress on Racial Equality illegally stalled their cars on the main roads leading to petitioner's plant for the purpose of blocking access to it at the time of the morning shift change. The District Judge described the plan for, and respondent's participation in, the 'stall-in' as follows:

'(F)ive teams, each consisting of four cars would 'tie up' five main access roads into McDonnell at the time of the morning rush hour. The drivers of the cars were instructed to line up next to each other completely blocking the intersections or roads. The drivers were also instructed to stop their cars, turn off the engines, pull the emergency brake, raise all windows, lock the doors, and remain in their cars until the police arrived. The plan was to have the cars remain in position for one hour.

'Acting under the 'stall in' plan, plaintiff (respondent in the present action) drove his car onto Brown Road, a McDonnell access road, at approximately 7:00 a.m., at the start of the morning rush hour. Plaintiff was aware of the traffic problems that would result. He stopped his car with the intent to block traffic. The police arrived shortly and requested plaintiff to move his car. He refused to move his car voluntarily. Plaintiff's car was towed away by the police, and he was arrested for obstructing traffic. Plaintiff pleaded guilty to the charge of obstructing traffic and was fined.' 318 F.Supp. 846.

On July 2, 1965, a 'lock-in' took place wherein a chain and padlock were placed on the front door of a building to prevent the occupants, certain of petitioner's employees, from leaving. Though respondent apparently knew beforehand of the 'lock-in,' the full extent of his involvement remains uncertain.3

Some three weeks following the 'lock-in,' on July 25, 1965, petitioner publicly advertised for qualified mechanics, respondent's trade, and respondent promptly applied for re-employment. Petitioner turned down respondent, basing its rejection on respondent's participation in the 'stall-in' and 'lock-in.' Shortly thereafter, respondent filed a formal complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, claiming that petitioner had refused to rehire him because of his race and persistent involvement in the civil rights movement, in violation of §§ 703(a)(1) and 704(a) of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e—2(a)(1) and 2000e—3(a).4 The former section generally prohibits racial discrimination in any employment decision while the latter forbids discrimination against applicants or employees for attempting to protest or correct allegedly discriminatory conditions of employment.

The Commission made no finding on respondent's allegation of racial bias under § 703(a)(1), but it did find reasonable cause to believe petitioner had violated § 704(a) by refusing to rehire respondent because of his civil rights activity. After the Commission unsuccess-fully attempted to conciliate the dispute, it advised respondent in March 1968, of his right to institute a civil action in federal court within 30 days.

On April 15, 1968, respondent brought the present action, claiming initially a violation of § 704(a) and, in an amended complaint, a violation of § 703(a)(1) as well.5 The District Court, 299 F.Supp. 1100, dismissed the latter claim of racial discrimination in petitioner's hiring procedures on the ground that the Commission had failed to make a determination of reasonable cause to believe that a violation of that section had been committed. The District Court also found that petitioner's refusal to rehire respondent was based solely on his participation in the illegal demonstrations and not on his legitimate civil rights activities. The court concluded that nothing in Title VII or § 704 protected 'such activity as employed by the plaintiff in the 'stall in' and 'lock in' demonstrations.' 318 F.Supp., at 850.

On appeal, the Eighth Circuit affirmed that unlawful protests were not protected activities under § 704(a),6 but reversed the dismissal of respondent's § 703(a)(1) claim relating to racially discriminatory hiring practices, holding that a prior Commission determination of reasonable cause was not a jurisdictional prerequisite to raising a claim under that section in federal court. The court ordered the case remanded for trial of respondent's claim under § 703(a)(1).

In remanding, the Court of Appeals attempted to set forth standards to govern the consideration of respondent's claim. The majority noted that respondent had established a prima facie case of racial discrimination; that petitioner's refusal to rehire respondent rested on 'subjective' criteria which carried little weight in rebutting charges of discrimination; that, though respondent's participation in the unlawful demonstrations might indicate a lack of a responsible attitude toward performing work for that employer, respondent should be given the opportunity to demonstrate that petitioner's reasons for refusing to rehire him were mere pretext.7 In order to clarify the standards governing the disposition of an action challenging employment discrimination, we granted certiorari, 409 U.S. 1036, 93 S.Ct. 522, 34 L.Ed.2d 485 (1972).

I

We agree with the Court of Appeals that absence of a Commission finding of reasonable cause cannot bar suit under an appropriate section of Title VII and that the District Judge erred in dismissing respondent's claim of racial discrimination under § 703(a)(1). Respondent satisfied the jurisdictional prerequisites to a federal action (i) by filing timely charges of employment discrimination with the Commission and (ii) by...

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