Law School Case Brief
Johnson v. Transp. Agency - 480 U.S. 616, 107 S. Ct. 1442 (1987)
The ultimate burden remains with the employees to demonstrate the unconstitutionality of an affirmative-action program, and the Court sees no basis for a different rule regarding a plan's alleged violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C.S. § 2000e et seq. Once a plaintiff establishes a prima facie case that race or sex has been taken into account in an employer's employment decision, the burden shifts to the employer to articulate a nondiscriminatory rationale for its decision. The existence of an affirmative action plan provides such a rationale. If such a plan is articulated as the basis for the employer's decision, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to prove that the employer's justification is pretextual and the plan is invalid.
The transportation agency of a California county unilaterally promulgated an affirmative-action plan applicable to, among other things, promotions of employees. The plan provided that, in making promotions to positions within a traditionally segregated job classification in which women have been significantly underrepresented, the agency was authorized to consider as one factor the sex of a qualified applicant. The agency noted in the plan that women were represented in numbers far less than their proportion of the county labor force both in the agency as a whole and in five of seven job categories. Stating that the plan intended to achieve a statistically measurable yearly improvement in the hiring, training, and promotion of minorities and women throughout the agency in all major job classifications where they were underrepresented, the agency also pointed out that its long-term goal was to attain a work force whose composition reflected the proportion of minorities and women in the area labor force. The director of the agency, who was authorized to choose any of the seven, did not follow a second interviewing board's recommendation to promote one of the second-ranked applicants, a male, but instead selected the female who was the third-ranked applicant, after taking into account her and the male employee's qualifications, their test scores, their expertise, their backgrounds, and affirmative-action matters. The male employee filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging that he had been denied promotion on the basis of sex in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (42 USCS 2000e et seq.), and after receiving a right-to-sue letter from the Commission, filed suit in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California. Finding that the complainant was more qualified for the dispatcher position than the female applicant and that the latter's sex was the determining factor in her selection, the court held that the agency's plan was invalid on the ground that the evidence did not satisfy the applicable criterion in United Steelworkers of America v Weber (1979), that the plan be temporary. The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that the absence of an express termination date in the plan was not dispositive, since the plan repeatedly expressed its objective as the attainment, rather than the maintenance, of a work force mirroring the labor force in the county. According to the appellate court, the fact that the plan established no fixed percentage of positions for minorities or women made it less essential that the plan contain a relatively explicit deadline, and the consideration of the female applicant's sex was lawful.
Under the circumstances of the case at hand, was the agency’s plan valid?
The Supreme Court of the United States held that the agency appropriately took into account as one factor the sex of the female employee in determining that she should be promoted to the road dispatcher position, because the promotion satisfied the requirement enunciated in United Steelworkers of America v Weber (1979), i.e., that an employer seeking to justify the adoption of an affirmative-action plan need not point to its own prior discriminatory practices, nor even to evidence of an arguable violation on its part, but rather it need point only to a conspicuous imbalance in traditionally segregated job categories. According to the Court, the agency’s plan was undertaken to further an affirmative-action plan designed to eliminate agency work force imbalances in traditionally segregated job categories. Moreover, the Court ruled that the plan did not unnecessarily trammel the rights of male employees or create an absolute bar to their advancement.
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