Griggs at Midlife
30 Pages Posted: 23 Jun 2015 Last revised: 21 Aug 2015
Date Written: 2015
Griggs v. Duke Power, the Supreme Court case that held that policies that disproportionately harm minority employees can violate federal employment discrimination law even without evidence of “intentional” discrimination, recently turned forty. Griggs is generally celebrated as a landmark decision, but disparate impact’s current relevance (and its constitutionality) is hotly debated. Robert Belton’s The Crusade for Equality in the Workplace offers a rich and detailed history of the strategic choices that led to the plaintiffs’ victory in Griggs. This Review uses Belton’s history as a jumping off point to consider the contemporary importance of disparate impact in efforts to challenge employers’ use of criminal background screens. The Review also suggests that the failure to develop intersectional analysis — that is, an analysis of how sex and race may interact — in disparate impact doctrine risks obscuring key vectors of exclusion.
Belton’s book gives modern readers an inside look at the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund’s litigation campaign in Griggs, and it does an excellent job showing how lawyers used disparate impact doctrine to dismantle test and educational requirements that could have excluded many black employees. The book, however, focuses almost exclusively on race discrimination cases. This Review explores the contemporaneous — and less successful — development of the doctrine in early sex discrimination cases. Generally, courts have not required employers to modify workplace structures that fail to accommodate caregiving responsibilities or pregnancy, despite their disparate impact on the basis of sex. Moreover, such policies often disproportionately harm women of color. By filling in this history, the Review offers a more nuanced assessment of disparate impact’s early years.
The Review then considers contemporary efforts to challenge employers’ use of criminal background screens, policies that likewise cause a disparate impact on the basis of both race and sex. It suggests that current litigation might be more successful if the intersectional approach were better developed, but it also highlights the importance of compliance work in achieving equal employment opportunity in the modern world. Although the EEOC has lost some high profile cases in this area, its guidance indicating that criminal background screens may cause an unlawful disparate impact has pushed employers to reconsider and refine their use of such screens.
Keywords: disparate impact, Griggs, ban-the-box, criminal background screens
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