Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins

PETITIONER: Price Waterhouse
RESPONDENT: Ann B. Hopkins
LOCATION: Price Waterhouse

DOCKET NO.: 87-1167
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1988-1990)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit

CITATION: 490 US 228 (1989)
ARGUED: Oct 31, 1988
DECIDED: May 01, 1989
GRANTED: Mar 07, 1988

James H. Heller - on behalf of the Respondent
Ms. Kathryn A. Oberly - on behalf of the Petitioner

Facts of the case

Ann Hopkins worked at Price Waterhouse for five years before being proposed for partnership. Although Hopkins secured a $25 million government contract that year, the board decided to put her proposal on hold for the following year. The next year, when Price Waterhouse refused to re-propose her for partnership, she sued under Title VII for sex discrimination. Of 622 partners at Price Waterhouse, 7 were women. The partnership selection process relied on recommendations by other partners, some of whom openly opposed women in advanced positions, but Hopkins also had problems with being overly aggressive and not getting along with office staff.

The district court held that Price Waterhouse had discriminated, but Hopkins was not entitled to full damages because her poor interpersonal skills also contributed to the board’s decision. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit affirmed, but held that the employer is not liable if it can show by clear and convincing evidence that it would have made the same employment decision in the absence of discrimination.


Did the Court of Appeals err in requiring the employer to prove it would have made the same employment decision in the absence of discrimination by clear and convincing evidence?

Media for Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 31, 1988 in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument next in No. 87-1167, Price Waterhouse v. Ann B. Hopkins.

Ms. Oberly, you may begin whenever you're ready.

Ms. Kathryn A. Oberly:

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

This is a challenge under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act to Price Waterhouse's decision not to make Respondent a partner in the firm.

The District Court in this case, after a five-day trial, found that Price Waterhouse had legitimate non-discriminatory reasons for that decision.

The District Court also found that Respondent failed to prove that those reasons were a pretext for discrimination.

Under this Court's Title VII decisions, including the ones that have been discussed in the last hour, those findings should have resulted in a judgment for Price Waterhouse.

But then something inexplicable happened in the District Court's reasoning.

After making the findings that should have ended the case in favor of Price Waterhouse, the District Court went on to hold that three factors, each of which was innocent by itself, somehow combined to produce a Title VII violation in this case.

None of those factors was found to be evidence of intentional discrimination, or evidence that discrimination had in fact caused Respondent any injury.

But the District Court nevertheless concluded that Price Waterhouse violated Title VII because the firm failed to take affirmative steps to purge or purify its decision-making process of an unquantifiable, unconscious, and unintentional element of sex stereotyping.

This finding of a tainted process at Price Waterhouse led the District Court to characterize the case as one involving mixed motives for the employment decision.

On that basis of the mixed motive characterization, the Court then held that it became Price Waterhouse's burden to prove, and to prove by clear and convincing evidence, that its decision would have been the same even if the process hadn't been tainted.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

As you put it, the District Court must have... if there was a mixed motive, didn't it necessarily find that one of the reasons for the refusal was, was gender based?

Ms. Kathryn A. Oberly:

Justice White, that's the part of the opinion that I frankly find inexplicable, and somewhat I like an O'Henry novel, because he first found all the factors that should have resulted in Price Waterhouse's winning this case.

He then found that he was unable to conclude what role the supposedly illegitimate motive played in the decision.

He didn't say it played a significant role.

He didn't say it played a substantial role.

He said it played an undefined role.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

Well then, I'd better wait until you tell me what the Court of Appeals did.

Ms. Kathryn A. Oberly:

I'll tell you now that the Court of Appeals affirmed it.

But I'll come back to that.

Antonin Scalia:

You interpret an undefined role to mean some role?

Ms. Kathryn A. Oberly:



Ms. Kathryn A. Oberly:

Yes, I interpret it to mean some role.

--Some role.

Ms. Kathryn A. Oberly:

And I also interpret, as I'll be arguing to the Court, that some role is not enough to satisfy the Plaintiff's burden in this case, that at a minimum it has to be a significant or a substantial role, and that the District Court was unable to make those findings on the record in this case.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Well, you argue for some "but for" standard of causation?

Or are you willing to settle for a, substantial factor?