American Tobacco Company v. Patterson

PETITIONER:American Tobacco Company, et al.
RESPONDENT:John Patterson, et al.

DOCKET NO.: 80-1199
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1981-1986)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit

CITATION: 456 US 63 (1982)
ARGUED: Jan 19, 1982
DECIDED: Apr 05, 1982
GRANTED: Jun 15, 1981

David A. Strauss – on behalf of Respondent EEOC, pro hac vice
Henry L. Marsh, III, – on behalf of the Respondents Patterson et al
Henry T. Wickham – on behalf of the Petitioners American Tobacco Co. et al
Ronald Rosenberg – on behalf of the Petitioner Unions

Facts of the case

American Tobacco Company operated two plants in Richmond, VA. Until 1963, both plants were segregated, and the better job opportunities were reserved for white employees. Between 1963 and 1968, the plants were officially desegregated, but the promotion policies were left mostly to the discretion of the supervisors. The best jobs continued to go to the white employees. In November 1968, the company proposed nine new lines of employment progression that linked bottom jobs with the top job a worker could eventually receive. Four of the lines linked majority-white bottom jobs with majority-white top jobs; two of the lines linked majority-black bottom jobs with majority-black top jobs. The top jobs for the majority-white progression lines were the best jobs in the factories.

On January 3, 1969, John Patterson and two other employees filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). In 1973, alleging violations of the Civil Rights Act, the employees sued the company in district court . The district court held that the lines of progression violated the Act and prohibited the company from using them. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth District affirmed and remanded the case for further proceedings to determine the remedy. The Supreme Court denied certiorari.

On remand, the petitioners filed a motion to dismiss the complaints by arguing that the seniority system was exempt from the Civil Rights Act. The district court denied the motion. The Court of Appeals affirmed the decision because that the lines of progression are not a seniority system. The Court of Appeals also held that the immunity for seniority systems only extends to those in place before the effective date of the Civil Rights Act.


Does the section of the Civil Rights Act that affirms the legality of seniority systems apply to those adopted after the effective date of the Act?

Media for American Tobacco Company v. Patterson

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – January 19, 1982 in American Tobacco Company v. Patterson

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – April 05, 1982 in American Tobacco Company v. Patterson

William J. Brennan, Jr.:

The opinion for the Court in 80-1199, American Tobacco Company versus Patterson will be announced by Justice White.

Byron R. White:

Under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, employment practices are illegal if they are purposely discriminatory or if they have that effect.

Section 703(h) of the Act however says that an employer may treat their employees differently pursuant to a seniority system if that system — what was — is not — it was — if — provided that system is not racially discriminatory intentionally.

A seniority system that just has a racially discriminatory effect is not illegal under the Act.

The Court of Appeals in this case held that Section 703(h) protected only those seniority systems that were adopted prior to the date the Civil Rights Act that was passed.

We reverse that judgment.

We hold that 703(h) applies to all seniority systems whether they were adopted before or after the date of the passage of the Act.

Mr. Justice Brennan has filed a dissenting opinion and he is joined by Justices Marshall and Blackmun.

And Justice Stevens has filed a dissenting opinion.

William J. Brennan, Jr.:

Thank you Justice White.