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Law School Case Brief

Cooper v. Fed. Res. Bank - 467 U.S. 867, 104 S. Ct. 2794 (1984)


The crucial difference between an individual's claim of discrimination and a class action alleging a general pattern or practice of discrimination is manifest. The inquiry regarding an individual's claim is the reason for a particular employment decision, while at the liability stage of a pattern-or-practice trial the focus often will not be on individual hiring decisions, but on a pattern of discriminatory decision-making.


The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission brought an action in federal district court against respondent Federal Reserve Bank, alleging that one of respondent's branches ("Bank") violated § 703(a) of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by engaging in employment discrimination based on race during a specified time period. Subsequently, four of the Bank's employees ("Cooper petitioners") were allowed to intervene as plaintiffs, and they alleged that the Bank's employment practices violated 42 U.S.C.S. § 1981, as well as Title VII, and that they could adequately represent a class of black employees against whom the Bank had discriminated. The district court certified the class pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 23(b)(2) and (3), and ordered that notice be given to the class members. Among the recipients of the notice were the Baxter petitioners. At trial, both the Cooper petitioners and the Baxter petitioners testified, and the district court held that the Bank had engaged in a pattern and practice of racial discrimination with respect to employees in certain specified pay grades but not with respect to employees above those grades, and found that the Bank had discriminated against two of the Cooper petitioners but not against the others. Thereafter, the Baxter petitioners moved to intervene, but the district court denied the motion on the ground, as to one petitioner, that since she was a member of the class to which relief had been ordered, her rights would be protected in the later relief stage of the proceedings, and, as to the other petitioners, on the ground that they were employed in jobs above the specified grades for which relief would be granted. These latter Baxter petitioners then filed a separate action against the Bank in the district court, alleging that each of them had been denied a promotion because of their race in violation of 42 U.S.C.S. § 1981. The district court denied the Bank's subsequent motion to dismiss but certified its order for interlocutory appeal, which was then consolidated with the Bank's pending appeal in the class action. On appeal, the court of appeals reversed on the merits in the class action, holding that there was insufficient evidence to establish a pattern or practice of racial discrimination in the specified grades, and that none of the Cooper petitioners had been discriminated against. The court further held that, under the doctrine of res judicata, the judgment in the class action precluded the Baxter petitioners from maintaining their individual claims against the Bank.


Were the claims of the Baxter petitioners barred by res judicata under a dismissed class action for the same underlying claims of discrimination?




The Supreme Court of the United States held that since the class action was dismissed for failure to prove discrimination, the individual members of class had no occasion to prove discrimination in their own right. The Court held that Baxter petitioners were not barred by res judicata in bringing their own claims for discrimination and reinstated their lawsuit. The Court reversed the decision of the lower court and remanded the cause.

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