Hishon v. King & Spalding

PETITIONER: Elizabeth Anderson Hishon
RESPONDENT: King & Spalding
LOCATION: Hishon & King Atlanta Office

DOCKET NO.: 82-940
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1981-1986)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit

CITATION: 467 US 69 (1984)
ARGUED: Oct 31, 1983
DECIDED: May 22, 1984

Charles Morgan, Jr. - on behalf of the Respondent
Emmit J. Bondurant, II - on behalf of the Petitioner
Emmet J. Bondurant, II - for petitioner
Paul M. Bator - as amicus curiae

Facts of the case

In 1972 Elizabeth Anderson Hishon accepted a position with King & Spalding (Firm), a law firm in Atlanta, Georgia. During recruitment, Hishon had been told that after five or six years there was a possibility of promotion to partner; associates with “satisfactory evaluations” would be promoted to partner on a “fair and equal basis.” Hishon claimed to have relied on this information when making her decision to accept employment with the Firm. After six years of employment, Hishon was considered for admission to the partnership and was ultimately rejected. One year later Hishon was again considered for admission and again rejected. She was told to begin seeking new employment and was let go in December 1979.

In November 1979, Hishon sued the Firm and filed her claim with the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission. Hishon claimed that she was discriminated against on the basis of her sex and that this discrimination violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Commission issued a notice of right to sue, and Hishon sued in federal district court. The district court dismissed her claim, and Hishon appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, which affirmed that ruling.


Did King & Spalding violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and unfairly discriminate against Hishon on the basis of her sex by denying her admission to the partnership?

Media for Hishon v. King & Spalding

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 31, 1983 in Hishon v. King & Spalding

Warren E. Burger:

We will hear arguments next in Hishon against King and Spalding.

Mr. Bondurant, you may proceed whenever you are ready.

Emmit J. Bondurant, II:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

Next summer we will observe the 20th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

It is ironic that after almost 19 years of the existence of that Act we are before this Court to discuss the question of whether or not that Act applies to sex discrimination in the private practice of law in the most highly compensated, and outside the judiciary, the most prestigious positions of the legal profession.

Warren E. Burger:

High compensated as compared to the judiciary?


Emmit J. Bondurant, II:


I think I said most highly compensated, and outside of the judiciary, most prestigious, Your Honor.

Byron R. White:

I see.

A slight question as to where you put the comma, isn't it.


Emmit J. Bondurant, II:

I don't think the Court was misinformed as to the intent.

The lower courts in this case held that because the Respondent was organized as a commonlaw partnership, acts of discrimination, which the complaint alleges, were practiced by that firm in the selection of partners were outside the coverage of the Act.

Thus, even though the complaint specifically alleged, and the lower courts accepted it as true, as, of course, they must for purposes of ruling upon a motion to dismiss, that the firm engaged, pursuant to a 100-year pattern and practice, of discrimination against women in the selection of partners.

The lower courts nevertheless ruled that that discrimination was outside the coverage of Title VII and that Title VII afforded the Petitioner no remedy for that discrimination.

An analysis of this case must begin, of course, with the statutory language of the Act.

There is no question in this case that King & Spalding is not an employer or a person covered by the Act.

That is undisputed.

It is plainly a firm engaged in the practice of law in the course of interstate commerce with 15 or more employees and with offices in two cities.

Nor is there is question in this case as to whether or not Ms. Hishon, an associate for almost eight years with the firm, was an employee of the firm.

She plainly was an employee as an associate.

The question in this case rather is whether or not the particular acts of sex discrimination which the complaint alleges were practiced by King & Spalding, admittedly an employer, against Ms. Hishon, admittedly an employee covered by the Act, were themselves unlawful employment practices covered by Section 703 of the Act.

We believe that the answers to these questions are in the affirmative.

First, let me point out by stating that the Petitioner agrees with the position taken by the Solicitor General that it is really not essential in this case to reach of the broader question of whether or not the partnership relationship; that is the relationship between an individual partner and the institution itself is an employment relationship.

For reasons that we have set forth in the brief, we think an affirmative answer to that question is indicated in this and other cases.

However, this case can be decided on the narrower ground, that in her particular position as an associate of the law firm, the opportunity to be considered for partnership on a fair, equal, and non-discriminatory basis was both a term, condition, and privilege of her employment and employment opportunity, both of which were explicitly within the protection of Section 703 of the Act and were, when the firm practiced sexual discrimination in making those decisions, were unlawful employment practices within the meaning of the Act.

The complaint clearly and specifically alleged that the firm held out and represented to the Petitioner and to all other associates whom it sought to recruit, the opportunity for fair, non-discriminatory consideration for partnership after completion of five or six years' employment with the firm and hard and satisfactory work during that period.

Warren E. Burger:

Did they all become partners?

Emmit J. Bondurant, II:

No, Your Honor, they all did not become partners.