Distinguishing Disparate Treatment from Disparate Impact; Confusion on the Court

26 Pages Posted: 31 Oct 2015 Last revised: 21 Nov 2015

See all articles by Michael Harper

Michael Harper

Boston University - School of Law

Date Written: October 30, 2015


In two decisions in the 2014-2015 Term, Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc., and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Abercrombie & Fitch, Inc., the Court seemed to give contradictory answers to an important unresolved conceptual definitional question: Does disparate treatment include assigning members of a protected group based on their protected status to a larger disfavored group that is defined by neutral principles and that includes others who are not members of the protected group? Or does such assignment have only a disparate impact on the protected status group?

In Young, the first of these decisions, all members of the Court, though divided on the appropriate analysis, seemed to assume that consideration of protected status in assigning an individual to a more broadly defined larger disfavored group is not overt disparate treatment. In Abercrombie, however, a conceptually identical case involving alleged religion-based rather than pregnancy-based discrimination, eight members of the Court held that consideration of a protected religious practice under a general policy that defined a larger group to be disfavored is illegal disparate treatment, absent the availability of a statutory defense.

The Court’s decision in Young was unfortunate. This is not only because the majority opinion diluted the Pregnancy Amendment Act (PDA) amendments to Title VII with a confusing opinion that provided incomplete guidance for future cases or even the Young case itself on remand. It is also because the opinion weakened the appropriate clarification that the Abercrombie decision might have given to the conceptual line between the disparate treatment and disparate impact forms of discrimination proscribed by Title VII. The essay explains why disparate treatment analysis is appropriate in cases where protected status is taken into account under a more general policy that defines a disfavored group that encompasses but is more inclusive than the protected status.

Keywords: disparate treatment, disparate impact, Title VII, pregnancy discrimination, religious discrimination, intentional discrimination, Supreme Court inconsistency

Suggested Citation

Harper, Michael Conrad, Distinguishing Disparate Treatment from Disparate Impact; Confusion on the Court (October 30, 2015). Boston University Law Review, Vol. 96, 2016, Forthcoming, Boston Univ. School of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 15-52, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2684114

Michael Conrad Harper (Contact Author)

Boston University - School of Law ( email )

765 Commonwealth Avenue
Boston, MA 02215
United States

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