West v. Gibson

LOCATION: Residence of Brenda Roe

DOCKET NO.: 98-238
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit

CITATION: 527 US 212 (1999)
ARGUED: Apr 26, 1999
DECIDED: Jun 14, 1999

Barbara B. McDowell - Department of Justice, argued the cause for the petitioner
Timothy M. Kelly - Argued the cause for the respondent

Facts of the case

In 1991, Congress amended Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to permit victims of intentional employment discrimination, whether within the private sector or the federal government, to recover compensatory damages. Thereafter, Michael Gibson filed a complaint with the Department of Veterans Affairs, alleging that the Department had discriminated against him by denying him a promotion on the basis of his gender. The Department found against Gibson. Afterwards, however, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) awarded Gibson the promotion plus backpay. Later Gibson filed suit, in the District Court, seeking compensatory damages and a court order for the Department to comply with the EEOC's order. Subsequently, the Department voluntarily complied with the EEOC's order, but it opposed Gibson's claim for compensatory damages. Ultimately, the District Court dismissed Gibson's complaint. On appeal, the Department supported the District Court's dismissal with the argument that Gibson had failed to exhaust his administrative remedies in respect to his compensatory damages claim; therefore, he could not bring that claim in court. In reversing, the Court of Appeals rejected the Department's argument. The court viewed the EEOC as lacking the legal power necessary to award compensatory damages. Consequently, there was no administrative remedy to exhaust.


Does the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission possess the legal authority to require federal agencies to pay compensatory damages when they discriminate in employment in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964?

Media for West v. Gibson

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 26, 1999 in West v. Gibson

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 14, 1999 in West v. Gibson

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the Court in No. 98-238, West versus Gibson will be announced by Justice Breyer.

Stephen G. Breyer:

Since 1972 Title VII of the Civil Rights Act has forbidden government employers to discriminate on the basis of race or color, religion, gender, national origin.

The Act provides a remedial system so in the case of the government employee, who think he has been discriminated against, that employee first have to bring a complaint to the department that employs in and then if he wants, he can go to the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission and from there or if he doesn't want he can go directly to Federal Court.

The Act gives to the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, the power to provide "appropriate remedy".

Now, before 1991 the Act itself contained only equitable remedies such as reinstatement in backpay did not include legal remedies like compensatory damages.

But in 1991 Congress amended the Act, so that it would say that a complaining party "may recover compensatory damages" in an action brought under the Civil Rights Act.

Now, obviously that amendment allows the government employee to go get compensatory damages in a court action.

But does it also permit the employee to obtain compensatory damages from the EEOC, if he goes there first perhaps on his way to court?

We conclude that the law as amended in 1991 does permit the EEOC to avoid compensatory damages.

Remember as I just said that Title VII gives the EEOC the power to provide "appropriate remedy".

Now, before the amendment that term probably did not include compensatory damages because the Act like Title VII itself only provided equitable remedies, but after the amendment, in our view, compensatory damages became appropriate.

As we explained our interpretation of the statutory languages consistent with that language and our interpretation furthers Congress' remedial purpose because it encourages the use of less expensive administrative remedies, rather than requiring more expensive court actions in order to get the compensatory damages.

We find nothing in the law's legislative history that would favor any contrary interpretation and despite certain language in the amendment that does make the matter less than absolutely clear.

We believe it is clear enough to satisfy any special clarity requirement that is imposed by the fact that this might be involving a waiver of sovereign immunity.

We reverse a contrary Court of Appeals holding and we remand the case for consideration of other issues.

Justice Kennedy has filed a dissenting opinion which the Chief Justice and Justices Scalia and Thomas have joined.