U.S. Congress Strengthens Equal Opportunity Laws Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

With passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1991, Congress restored equal opportunity law to its status before 1989, the year in which several U.S. Supreme Court decisions weakened two decades of legal precedents.

Summary of Event

The Civil Rights Act of 1991 has been described as among the most sweeping civil rights laws to be passed by Congress. In response to several adverse decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court, Senators Ted Kennedy, a Democrat, and John Danforth, a Republican, jointly sponsored the Civil Rights Act of 1991, which was drafted with the objective of overturning these decisions. President George H. W. Bush, who had vetoed a similar bill in 1990, signed the bill into law in 1991. Civil Rights Act of 1991 Equal opportunity laws [kw]U.S. Congress Strengthens Equal Opportunity Laws (Nov. 7, 1991) [kw]Congress Strengthens Equal Opportunity Laws, U.S. (Nov. 7, 1991) [kw]Equal Opportunity Laws, U.S. Congress Strengthens (Nov. 7, 1991) [kw]Laws, U.S. Congress Strengthens Equal Opportunity (Nov. 7, 1991) Civil Rights Act of 1991 Equal opportunity laws [g]North America;Nov. 7, 1991: U.S. Congress Strengthens Equal Opportunity Laws[08220] [g]United States;Nov. 7, 1991: U.S. Congress Strengthens Equal Opportunity Laws[08220] [c]Civil rights and liberties;Nov. 7, 1991: U.S. Congress Strengthens Equal Opportunity Laws[08220] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Nov. 7, 1991: U.S. Congress Strengthens Equal Opportunity Laws[08220] Bush, George H. W. [p]Bush, George H. W.;Civil Rights Act (1991) Danforth, John Kennedy, Ted

Through congressional hearings, Congress concluded that additional remedies under federal law were needed to deter unlawful harassment and intentional discrimination in the workplace; decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court Supreme Court, U.S.;civil rights had weakened the effectiveness of federal civil rights protection; and legislation was necessary to provide additional protection against unlawful discrimination in employment. The expressed purpose of the Civil Rights Act of 1991 was to restore the state of discrimination law to what it had been before 1989, the year in which a conservative Supreme Court issued several decisions that seriously threatened the enforceability of equal opportunity laws. The act further expanded the scope of coverage of relevant civil rights statutes to include individuals or plaintiffs who sued under the Age Discrimination Act (ADA) Age Discrimination Act (1975) or the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Rehabilitation Act (1973) and granted coverage to federal employees of Congress and employees of U.S. companies located in foreign countries.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964[Title 07 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964] Civil Rights Act of 1964 had made it unlawful to discriminate in employment because of race, ethnicity, color, sex, or religion. The primary issue facing judicial bodies empowered to adjudicate claims of discrimination was to define what employment practices violated Title VII and other antidiscrimination laws. Traditionally, employers screened potential employees by the use of general intelligence and aptitude tests, word-of-mouth recruiting, and other subjective criteria that disproportionately excluded minorities from employment and promotion or had disparate impacts on their possibilities of employment or promotion.

In Griggs v. Duke Power Company (1971), Griggs v. Duke Power Company (1971) which is considered the most important decision in the evolution of equal employment opportunity law, the Supreme Court had articulated the major principle that invalidated general intelligence tests and other criteria that had the effect of excluding minorities, regardless of the intent of the employer. The Court stated that if any criteria had a disparate impact on the protected group, the criteria were unlawful and could be sustained only if they were related to the job and necessary for business. The burden of proof to rebut the claim shifted to the employer once the possibility of discrimination had been shown through statistical or other evidence.

In 1989, the Supreme Court issued several decisions that reversed the Griggs burden-of-proof standard and several other major legal principles governing unlawful discrimination. In Wards Cove Packing Company v. Atonio, Wards Cove Packing Company v. Atonio (1989) the Supreme Court changed the Griggs standard by holding that employees not only must show that they were disparately and discriminatorily affected but also must prove that the employer could have employed alternate ways with less disparate impact. In Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins (1989) the Court held that even after the employer has been found guilty of unlawful discrimination, it could still escape liability by showing that the employee would have been dismissed or treated differently for another nondiscriminatory reason. These changes made it significantly more difficult for plaintiffs to prevail in suits.

Significance

The Civil Rights Act of 1991 restored the Griggs principle. It also reversed the Price Waterhouse decision, stipulating that an unlawful practice is established when the complaining party demonstrates that race, color, religion, or national origin was a motivating factor for any employment practice, even though other factors also motivated the decision.

In Patterson v. McLean Credit Union (1989) Patterson v. McLean Credit Union (1989)[Patterson v. Maclean Credit Union] the Supreme Court severely limited section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 Civil Rights Act of 1866 when it held that the act covered only unlawful discrimination with regard to race and national origin at the time of hiring. Acts of discrimination that occurred after hiring were no longer illegal under the Civil Rights Act of 1866. The Civil Rights Act of 1991 reversed this decision by prohibiting pre- and postemployment discrimination.

In Lorance v. AT&T Technologies (1989) Lorance v. AT&T Technologies (1989)[Lorance v. AT and T Technologies] the Supreme Court upheld the dismissal of discrimination charges by female employees who charged that the implementation of a new seniority system discriminated against them. This decision established the principle that although women had been adversely affected by a new seniority policy, their complaint was barred because the statute of limitations had expired. The Supreme Court ruled that the timing began at the time of the policy change and not when the women became aware of the discriminatory effects of the policy. This reasoning was criticized on the grounds that an individual often may not know the discriminatory impact of the policy change until long after the statute of limitations for filing has passed. The Civil Rights Act of 1991 restored the legal principle that the statute of limitations begins when the individual becomes aware of the discrimination.

Many municipalities have entered into consent decrees that grant relief to minority employees to avoid lengthy and costly litigations. Such consent decrees may adversely affect the interests of white male employees. However, all parties affected by the decree are notified and given an opportunity to intervene to protect the interests of their members. Once the consent decree has been approved by the court, it cannot be challenged in the future. In Martin v. Wilks (1989) Martin v. Wilks (1989) the Supreme Court established a new principle. It allowed new white firefighters who were not a party to the original consent decree and judgment to reopen the decision. Had this new principle been allowed to stand, it would have threatened the validity of hundreds of consent decrees in the United States. The Civil Rights Act of 1991 reversed this decision. The act precluded any later challenge by a present employee, former employee, or applicant to a consent decree granting affirmative rights to minority employees.

Several major differences existed between section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and other equal opportunity laws with respect to remedies available to plaintiffs. Whereas a plaintiff had a right to a jury trial and compensatory and punitive damages under section 1981 of the 1866 act, plaintiffs who sued under Title VII, the ADA, and the Rehabilitation Act had no right to a jury trial and could only seek compensatory damages. The Civil Rights Acts of 1991 expanded these rights accorded to plaintiffs under section 1981 to plaintiffs who were subjected to intentional discrimination under Title VII, the ADA, and the Rehabilitation Act.

Another notable limitation in the equal opportunity law was the absence of protection from discrimination for federal employees and U.S. citizens working in U.S. firms overseas. The Civil Rights Act of 1991 extended the right to sue to federal employees in the legislative and executive branches under Title VII, ADA, and the Rehabilitation Act. One exception was made to the definition of unlawful practices: that party affiliation and political compatibility may not be attacked as unfair employment practices. Furthermore, the act extended coverage to U.S. employees employed in foreign lands by U.S. firms.

Civil service examinations are required for most jobs and promotions in the public sector. Applicants are supposed to be chosen based on competitive scores earned. It has been charged, however, that these tests are biased in favor of white men in particular and white applicants and employees in general. Generally, a higher proportion of whites will score higher than members of minority groups. To ensure that a larger number of minorities will be hired and promoted, the scores are adjusted for minorities such that some minorities with lower scores occasionally may be selected over whites with higher scores. This adjustment of test scores, which is referred to as race norming, emerged as a contentious issue in the United States. The Civil Rights Act of 1991 expressly prohibits compensatory adjustments to test scores in employment based upon race or other protected characteristics. Civil Rights Act of 1991 Equal opportunity laws

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Anderson, Terry H. The Pursuit of Fairness: A History of Affirmative Action. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Addresses all aspects of the history of affirmative action and equal employment opportunity law and practice in the United States. Includes discussion of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1991.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kmiec, D. W., et al. “The Civil Rights Act of 1991: Theory and Practice—A Symposium.” Notre Dame Law Review 68 (1993): 911-1164. Presents six critical articles on different aspects of the act.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Practising Law Institute. The Civil Rights Act of 1991: Its Impact on Employment Discrimination Litigation. New York: Author, 1992. Manual written for lawyers and other legal professionals offers an analysis of the Civil Rights Act of 1991.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">

    Rutgers Law Review 45, no. 4 (Summer, 1993): 887-1087. Contains eight critical articles on different aspects of the act. All were previously delivered at a symposium titled “The Civil Rights Act of 1991: Unraveling the Controversy.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. EEOC Compliance Manual. Chicago: Commerce Clearing House, 1995. Provides clear, comprehensive descriptions of unlawful practices, types of proofs and evidence that establish discrimination, and procedures to pursue claims of unlawful discrimination.

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Categories: History Content