Watson v. Fort Worth Bank & Trust

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Watson v. Fort Worth Bank & Trust
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Argued January 20, 1988
Decided June 29, 1988
Full case nameWatson v. Fort Worth Bank & Trust
Citations 487 U.S. 977 ( more )
108 S. Ct. 2777; 101 L. Ed. 2d 827; 56 U.S.L.W. 4922; 47 Fair Empl. Prac. Cas. (BNA) 102; 46 Empl. Prac. Dec. (CCH) ¶ 38,065
Prior history 798 F.2d 791 (vacated and remanded)
The reasons supporting the use of disparate impact analysis under Title VII apply to subjective employment practices.
Court membership
Chief Justice
William Rehnquist
Associate Justices
William J. Brennan Jr.  · Byron White
Thurgood Marshall  · Harry Blackmun
John P. Stevens  · Sandra Day O'Connor
Antonin Scalia  · Anthony Kennedy
Case opinions
Majority O'Connor (Parts I, II-A, II-B, III), joined by Rehnquist, Brennan, White, Marshall, Blackmun, Scalia
Plurality O'Connor (Parts II-C, II-D), joined by Rehnquist, White, Scalia
Concurrence Blackmun (in part and in judgment), joined by Brennan, Marshall
Concurrence Stevens (in judgment)
Kennedy took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.
Laws applied
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq.

Watson v. Fort Worth Bank & Trust, 487 U.S. 977 (1988), is a United States Supreme Court case on US labor law, concerning proof of disparate treatment under the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Supreme Court of the United States Highest court in the United States

The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) is the highest court in the federal judiciary of the United States. Established pursuant to Article III of the U.S. Constitution in 1789, it has original jurisdiction over a narrow range of cases, including suits between two or more states and those involving ambassadors. It also has ultimate appellate jurisdiction over all federal court and state court cases that involve a point of federal constitutional or statutory law. The Court has the power of judicial review, the ability to invalidate a statute for violating a provision of the Constitution or an executive act for being unlawful. However, it may act only within the context of a case in an area of law over which it has jurisdiction. The court may decide cases having political overtones, but it has ruled that it does not have power to decide nonjusticiable political questions.

Civil Rights Act of 1964 legislation

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is a landmark civil rights and labor law in the United States that outlaws discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. It prohibits unequal application of voter registration requirements, and racial segregation in schools, employment, and public accommodations.



Plaintiff Watson, an African-American bank teller, applied (on four separate occasions) for a promotion to a supervisory position at the bank.

The bank had not developed precise and formal selection criteria for the positions in question, but instead relied upon the subjective judgment of supervisors who were acquainted with the candidates and the nature of the jobs to be filled.

In all four instances, the supervisors involved in the promotion process were white, and all four times Watson was not selected.

After exhausting her administrative remedies before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Watson filed suit in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas. She included allegations that the bank's promotion policies discriminated both against blacks as a class and against her individually, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (42 USCS 2000e et seq.).

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is a federal agency that administers and enforces civil rights laws against workplace discrimination. The EEOC investigates discrimination complaints based on an individual's race, children, national origin, religion, sex, age, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, genetic information, and retaliation for reporting, participating in, and/or opposing a discriminatory practice.

United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas

The United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas is a United States district court. Its first judge, Andrew Phelps McCormick, was appointed to the court on April 10, 1879. The court convenes in Dallas, Texas with divisions in Fort Worth, Amarillo, Abilene, Lubbock, San Angelo and Wichita Falls. It has jurisdiction over 100 counties in the northern and central parts of the U.S. state of Texas.

After trial, the District Court, dismissing the teller's individual claims, found that she had failed to make a sufficient showing under applicable evidentiary standards. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed in relevant part, and expressed the view that the proper framework to apply to a Title VII challenge to an allegedly discretionary promotion system would be disparate treatment analysis (which involves the question whether an employer has, with a discriminatory intent or motive, treated a particular person less favorably than others because of that person's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin) rather than disparate impact analysis (which involves the question whether an employer has engaged in facially neutral employment practices that have significant adverse effects on protected groups, and which usually, in the absence of proof that the employer adopted such practices with a discriminatory intent, focuses on statistical disparities)

United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit federal court

The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit is a federal court with appellate jurisdiction over the district courts in the following federal judicial districts:


On certiorari, the United States Supreme Court vacated the judgment of the Court of Appeals and remanded the case for further proceedings.

Seven members of the Court (1) agreed that disparate impact analysis may be applied to allegedly discriminatory subjective or discretionary employment practices, and (2) agreed regarding certain aspects of the evidentiary standards applicable in such cases. In that portion (Parts I, II-A, II-B, and III) of the opinion by Justice O'Connor, it was held that, in a Title VII action, disparate impact analysis may properly be applied to subjective or discretionary employment practices.

Sandra Day OConnor Former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States

Sandra Day O'Connor is a retired Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, who served from her appointment in 1981 by President Ronald Reagan until her retirement in 2006. She was the first woman to serve on the Court.

Plurality opinion

The remainder (Parts II-C and II-D) of Justice O'Connor's opinion, joined by three other Justices, expressed the view that

(1) the plaintiff's burden in establishing a prima facie disparate impact case includes the responsibility for isolating and identifying the specific employment practices that are allegedly responsible for any observed statistical disparities in the employer's workforce,
(2) any statistical disparities must be sufficiently substantial that they raise the inference that the practice in question has caused the exclusion of applicants for jobs or promotions because of their membership in a protected group,
(3) it is appropriate to judge the significance or substantiality of numerical disparities on a case-by-case basis,
(4) courts and defendants are not obliged to assume that a plaintiff's statistical evidence is reliable,
(5) the ultimate burden of proving that discrimination against a protected group has been caused by a specific employment practice remains with the plaintiff at all times,
(6) thus, once a plaintiff has made out a prima facie case and an employer has met its burden of producing evidence that its employment practices are based on legitimate business reasons, the plaintiff must show that other tests or selection devices, without a similarly undesirable racial effect, would also serve the employer's legitimate interests, and
(7) employers are not required to introduce formal "validation studies" showing that particular criteria predict actual on-the-job performance.

Concurrence in part and in the judgment

Justice Blackmun agreed that disparate impact analysis may be applied to claims of discrimination caused by subjective or discretionary selection practices and that the plurality properly characterized the plaintiff's burden of showing that any numerical disparity is significant. He added that

Harry Blackmun American judge

Harry Andrew Blackmun was an American lawyer and jurist who served as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from 1970 until 1994. Appointed by Republican President Richard Nixon, Blackmun ultimately became one of the most liberal justices on the Court. He is best known as the author of the Court's opinion in Roe v. Wade, which prohibits many state and federal restrictions on abortion.

(1) the initial burden of proof in such a case is borne by the plaintiff, who must establish, by some form of numerical showing, that a facially neutral hiring practice selects applicants in a significantly discriminatory pattern,
(2) a plaintiff who successfully establishes a prima facie disparate impact case shifts the burden of proof, not production, to the defendant employer to establish that the employment practice in question is a business necessity,
(3) in order to constitute a business necessity justifying an employment practice producing a disparate impact, an employment criterion must directly relate to the ability to perform the job effectively, rather than bear merely an indirect or minimal relationship,
(4) even where an employer proves that a particular selection process is sufficiently job related, the process may still be determined to be unlawful, if the plaintiff persuades the court that other selection processes that have a lesser discriminatory effect could also suitably serve the employer's business needs,
(5) in assessing an employer's claim of business necessity, a reviewing court may not rely upon its own, or the employer's, sense of what is "normal" as a substitute for a neutral assessment of the evidence presented,
(6) an employer's burden of justification is not lessened simply because the practice relies upon subjective assessments, and
(7) the requirement of specifying the employment practice responsible for a statistical disparity cannot shield from liability an employer whose selection process is so poorly defined that no specific criterion can be connected with the disparate effect.

Concurrence in the judgment

Justice Stevens argued that

(1) the racially adverse impact of an employer's practice of simply committing employment decisions to the unchecked discretion of a white supervisory corps is subject to the disparate impact analysis test of Griggs v. Duke Power Co. (1971), and
(2) further discussion of evidentiary standards should have been postponed until after the District Court had made appropriate findings concerning the teller's prima facie evidence of disparate impact and the bank's explanation of its practice of giving supervisors discretion in making certain promotions.


A portion of the holding in Watson was superseded by the 1991 amendments to the Civil Rights Act. See Phillips v. Cohen, 400 F.3d 388, 397–98 (6th Cir. 2005); 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(k) (2008).

See also

McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973), is a US employment law case by the United States Supreme Court regarding the burdens and nature of proof in proving a Title VII case and the order in which plaintiffs and defendants present proof. It was the seminal case in the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework.

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Board of Trustees of the University of Alabama v. Garrett, 531 U.S. 356 (2001), was a United States Supreme Court case about Congress's enforcement powers under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The Supreme Court decided that Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act was unconstitutional, insofar as it allowed states to be sued by private citizens for money damages.

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The Civil Rights Act of 1991 is a United States labor law, passed in response to United States Supreme Court decisions that limited the rights of employees who had sued their employers for discrimination. The Act represented the first effort since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to modify some of the basic procedural and substantive rights provided by federal law in employment discrimination cases. It provided the right to trial by jury on discrimination claims and introduced the possibility of emotional distress damages and limited the amount that a jury could award. It added provisions to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protections expanding the rights of women to sue and collect compensatory and punitive damages for sexual discrimination or harassment.

Griggs v. Duke Power Co., 401 U.S. 424 (1971), was a court case argued before the Supreme Court of the United States on December 14, 1970. It concerned employment discrimination and the adverse impact theory, and was decided on March 8, 1971. It is generally considered the first case of its type.

Washington v. Davis, 426 U.S. 229 (1976), was a United States Supreme Court case that established that laws that have a racially discriminatory effect but were not adopted to advance a racially discriminatory purpose are valid under the U.S. Constitution.

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Statistical proof is the rational demonstration of degree of certainty for a proposition, hypothesis or theory that is used to convince others subsequent to a statistical test of the supporting evidence and the types of inferences that can be drawn from the test scores. Statistical methods are used to increase the understanding of the facts and the proof demonstrates the validity and logic of inference with explicit reference to a hypothesis, the experimental data, the facts, the test, and the odds. Proof has two essential aims: the first is to convince and the second is to explain the proposition through peer and public review.

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Texas Department of Community Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248 (1981), is a US labor law case of the United States Supreme Court.

Disparate treatment is one kind of unlawful discrimination in US labor law. In the United States, it means unequal behavior toward someone because of a protected characteristic under Title VII of the United States Civil Rights Act. This contrasts with disparate impact, where an employer applies a neutral rule that treats everyone equally in form, but has a disadvantageous effect on some people of a protected characteristic compared to others.

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