v. Swint United Steelworkers of America v. Swint, PULLMAN-STANDARD

Decision Date27 April 1982
Docket NumberPULLMAN-STANDARD,80-1193,AFL-CIO,Nos. 80-1190,s. 80-1190
Citation456 U.S. 273,102 S.Ct. 1781,72 L.Ed.2d 66
Parties, a Division of Pullman, Incorporated, Petitioner, v. Louis SWINT and Willie Johnson, etc. UNITED STEELWORKERS OF AMERICA,, et al., Petitioners v. Louis SWINT and Willie James Johnson
CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Syllabus

Respondent black employees brought suit in Federal District Court against petitioners, their employer and certain unions, alleging that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was violated by a seniority system, maintained by petitioners. The District Court found that the differences in terms, conditions, or privileges of employment resulting from the seniority system "are 'not the result of an intention to discriminate' because of race or color" and held, therefore, that the system satisfied the requirements of § 703(h) of the Act. That section provides that it shall not be an unlawful employment practice for an employer to apply different compensation standards 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." The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the differences in treatment of employees under the seniority system resulted from an intent to discriminate and thus violated § 703(h). Although recognizing that Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 52(a) requires that a District Court's findings of fact not be set aside unless clearly erroneous, the Court of Appeals concluded that a finding of discrimination or nondiscrimination under § 703(h) was a finding of "ultimate fact" that the court would review by making "an independent determination of [the] allegations of discrimination, though bound by findings of subsidiary fact which are themselves not clearly erroneous."

Held: The Court of Appeals erred in the course of its review of the District Court's judgment. Pp. 276-293.

(a) Under § 703(h), a showing of a disparate impact alone is insufficient to invalidate a seniority system, even though the result may be to perpetuate pre-Act discrimination. Absent a discriminatory purpose, the operation of a seniority system is not an unlawful employment practice even if the system has some discriminatory consequences. Pp. 276-277.

(b) Rule 52(a) does not divide findings of fact into those that deal with "ultimate" and those that deal with "subsidiary" facts. While the Rule does not apply to conclusions of law, here the District Court was not faulted for applying an erroneous definition of intentional discrimination. Rather, it was reversed for arriving at what the Court of Appeals thought was an erroneous finding as to whether the differential impact of the seniority system reflected an intent to discriminate on account of race for purposes of § 703(h). That question is a pure question of fact, subject to Rule 52(a)'s clearly-erroneous standard. Discriminatory intent here means actual motive; it is not a legal presumption to be drawn from a factual showing of something less than actual motive. Thus, a court of appeals may only reverse a district court's finding on discriminatory intent if it concludes that the finding is clearly erroneous under Rule 52(a). Pp. 285-290.

(c) While the Court of Appeals correctly stated the controlling clearly-erroneous standard of Rule 52(a), its conclusion that the challenged seniority system was unprotected by § 703(h) was the product of the court's improper independent consideration of the totality of the circumstances it found in the record. When the Court of Appeals concluded that the District Court had erred in failing to consider certain relevant evidence, it improperly made its own determination based on such evidence. When a district court's finding as to discriminatory intent under § 703(h) is set aside for an error of law, the court of appeals is not relieved of the usual requirement of remanding for further proceedings to the tribunal charged with the task of factfinding in the first instance. Pp. 290-293.

624 F.2d 525, reversed and remanded.

Michael H. Gottesman, Washington, D. C., for petitioners.

Elaine R. Jones, Washington, D. C., for respondents.

Justice WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

Respondents were black employees at the Bessemer, Ala., plant of petitioner Pullman-Standard (the Company), a manufacturer of railway freight cars and parts. They brought suit against the Company and the union petitioners—the United Steelworkers of America, AFL-CIO-CLC, and its Local 1466 (collectively USW) alleging violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, 78 Stat. 253, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. (1976 ed. and Supp.IV), and 42 U.S.C. § 1981.1 As they come here, these cases involve only the validity, under Title VII, of a seniority system maintained by the Company and USW. The District Court found "that the differences in terms, conditions or privileges of employment resulting [from the seniority system] are 'not the result of an intention to discriminate' because of race or color," App. to Pet. for Cert. in No. 80-1190, p. A-147 (hereinafter App.), and held, therefore, that the system satisfied the requirements of § 703(h) of the Act. The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed:

"Because we find that the differences in the terms, conditions and standards of employment for black workers and white workers at Pullman-Standard resulted from an intent to discriminate because of race, we hold that the system is not legally valid under section 703(h) of Title VII, 42 U.S.C. 2000e-2(h)." 624 F.2d 525, 533-534 (1980).

We granted the petitions for certiorari filed by USW and by the Company, 451 U.S. 906, 101 S.Ct. 1972, 68 L.Ed.2d 293 (1981), limited to the first question presented in each petition: whether a court of appeals is bound by the "clearly erroneous" rule of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 52(a) in reviewing a district court's findings of fact, arrived at after a lengthy trial, as to the motivation of the parties who negotiated a seniority system; and whether the court below applied wrong legal criteria in determining the bona fides of the seniority system. We conclude that the Court of Appeals erred in the course of its review and accordingly reverse its judgment and remand for further proceedings.

I

Title VII is a broad remedial measure, designed "to assure equality of employment opportunities." McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 800, 93 S.Ct. 1817, 1823, 36 L.Ed.2d 668 (1973). The Act was designed to bar not only overt employment discrimination, "but also practices that are fair in form, but discriminatory in operation." Griggs v. Duke Power Co., 401 U.S. 424, 431, 91 S.Ct. 849, 853, 28 L.Ed.2d 158 (1971). "Thus, the Court has repeatedly held that a prima facie Title VII violation may be established by policies or practices that are neutral on their face and in intent but that nonetheless discriminate in effect against a particular group." Teamsters v. United States, 431 U.S. 324, 349, 97 S.Ct. 1843, 1861, 52 L.Ed.2d 396 (1977) (hereinafter Teamsters). The Act's treatment of seniority systems, however, establishes an exception to these general principles. Section 703(h), 78 Stat. 257, as set forth in 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(h), provides in pertinent part:

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

Under this section, a showing of disparate impact is insufficient to invalidate a seniority system, even though the result may be to perpetuate pre-Act discrimination. In Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, 432 U.S. 63, 82, 97 S.Ct. 2264, 2275, 53 L.Ed.2d 113 (1977), we summarized the effect of § 703(h) as follows: "[A]bsent a discriminatory purpose, the operation of a seniority system cannot be an unlawful employment practice even if the system has some discriminatory consequences." Thus, any challenge to a seniority system under Title VII will require a trial on the issue of discriminatory intent: Was the system adopted because of its racially discriminatory impact?

This is precisely what happened in these cases. Following our decision in Teamsters, the District Court held a new trial on the limited question of whether the seniority system was "instituted or maintained contrary to Section 703(h) of the new Civil Rights Act of 1964." App. A-125.2 That court concluded, as we noted above and will discuss below, that the system was adopted and maintained for purposes wholly independent of any discriminatory intent. The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed.

II

Petitioners submit that the Court of Appeals failed to comply with the command of Rule 52(a) that the findings of fact of a district court may not be set aside unless clearly erroneous. We first describe the findings of the District Court and the Court of Appeals.

Certain facts are common ground for both the District Court and the Court of Appeals. The Company's Bessemer plant was unionized in the early 1940's. Both before and after unionization, the plant was divided into a number of different operational departments.3 USW sought to represent all production and maintenance employees at the plant and was elected in 1941 as the bargaining representative of a bargaining unit consisting of most of these employees. At that same time, IAM became the bargaining representative of a unit consisting of five departments.4 Between 1941 and 1944, IAM ceded certain workers in its bargaining unit to USW. As a result of this transfer, the IAM bargaining unit became all white.

Throughout the period of representation by USW, the plant was...

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