Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins

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Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Argued October 31, 1988
Decided May 1, 1989
Full case name Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins
Citations 490 U.S. 228 (more)
109 S. Ct. 1775; 104 L. Ed. 2d 268; 1989 U.S. LEXIS 2230; 57 U.S.L.W. 4469; 49 Fair Empl. Prac. Cas. (BNA) 954; 49 Empl. Prac. Dec. (CCH) P38,936
Prior history Judgment for plaintiff, 618 F. Supp. 1109 (1985);
Affirmed, 263 U. S. App. D. C. 321, 825 F. 2d 458 (1987)
Once a Title VII plaintiff proves that gender played a motivating part in an employment decision, the defendant can only avoid a finding of liability by proving by a preponderance of the evidence that it would have made the same decision regardless of the plaintiff's gender.
Court membership
Case opinions
Plurality Brennan, joined by Marshall, Blackmun, Stevens
Concurrence White (in judgment)
Concurrence O'Connor (in judgment)
Dissent Kennedy, joined by Rehnquist, Scalia
Laws applied
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, 490 U.S. 228 (1989), was an important decision by the United States Supreme Court on the issue of employer liability for sex discrimination. The Court held that the employer, the accounting firm Price Waterhouse, must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the decision regarding employment would have been the same if sex discrimination had not occurred. The accounting firm failed to prove that the same decision to postpone Ann Hopkins's promotion to partnership would have still been made in the absence of sex discrimination, and therefore, the employment decision constituted sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The significance of the Supreme Court's ruling was twofold. First, it established that gender stereotyping is actionable as sex discrimination. Second, it established the mixed-motive framework as an evidentiary framework for proving discrimination under a disparate treatment theory even when lawful reasons for the adverse employment action are also present.[1]


The plaintiff, Ann Hopkins, claimed she was postponed promotion to partnership at the firm for two years in a row based on sex-stereotyping against her gender nonconformity. Often co-workers described her as aggressive, foul-mouthed, demanding, and impatient with other staff members. During her evaluation, some written comments made by supervisory personnel stated that what Hopkins needed was a "course in charm school."[2][3]

After her promotion was postponed for the first year, Hopkins met with the head supervisor of her department, Thomas Beyer, who told her that to increase chances of promotion she needed to "walk more femininely, talk more femininely, dress more femininely, wear make-up, have her hair styled, and wear jewelry." Hopkins was well qualified for partnership, and frequently outperformed her co-workers.[citation needed] There were ample examples to show that she was denied promotion based on sex stereotyping. Many male employees said they would not be comfortable having her as their partner because she did not act the way they believed a woman should.[citation needed]

Ann Hopkins resigned from the accounting firm when she was rejected for partnership for the second year, and sued Price Waterhouse for violating her rights under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Both the district court and the federal circuit court of appeals ruled in Hopkins's favor, but there was disagreement on the level of proof (preponderance of evidence, or clear and convincing evidence) employers needed to provide to support their position after facts showed that sexual stereotyping affected terms of employment. The case was granted a writ of certiorari and heard before the U.S. Supreme Court.[citation needed]

Plurality opinion[edit]

The important question in this case was what should be the appropriate standard for finding liability in Title VII cases. Price Waterhouse suggested that the employee must prove that the employer gave "decisive consideration to an employee's gender, race, national origin, or religion" in making an employment decision in order to be held liable, and that they could escape liability by proving that, even absent the discriminatory aspects of the decisionmaking process, the decision would have been made in the same way. Hopkins disagreed, saying that liability could be proven by merely showing that the employer considered such an attribute. The extent of the consideration, and the result of a hypothetical process not involving the discrimination, could be used to "limit equitable relief," but could not serve as a complete defense as to liability.[4] The court's answer to this question was to compromise.

They first introduced the term "but-for causation" to describe what Price Waterhouse suggests should be the burden of proof, but rejected its validity as an interpretation of the phrase "because of" in Title VII's section on prohibited actions.[5] They reasoned that the two are separate because Congress, in writing the provision, did not write "solely because of", and so, a process that only involved some small amount of discrimination would still be prohibited by the statute.[6]

The court went on to explain that the employer should be able to escape liability if they can prove that they would have made the same decision, had discrimination not played any role in the process. The burden shifts, after the plaintiff proves that discrimination played a role, to the employer to make this rebuttal.[7]

The court also elaborated on the meaning of "gender play[ing] a motivating part in an employment decision", saying that it meant that if, at the moment the decision was made, one of the reasons for making the decision was that the applicant or employee was a woman, then that decision was motivated by gender discrimination. This definition includes stereotypes based on sex, which previous definitions had not.[8]

Another consequence of this case was that the employer's rebuttal as to the question whether a discriminatory judgment was the "but-for" reason for the decision could be made with only a "preponderance of the evidence", as opposed to the prior standard of "clear and convincing evidence," a reduction in the burden of proof for employers who wish to escape liability.[9]


  1. ^ Goldstein, Leslie. "Gender Stereotyping and the Workplace: Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins (1989)." 2006. The Constitutional and Legal Rights of Women, 3rd ed. Los Angeles: Roxbury, 2006. 167-75. Print.
  2. ^ Levit, Nancy (1998). The Gender Line: Men, Women and the Law. New York University Press. p. 212. Retrieved 27 December 2014. 
  3. ^ Page, Clarence (23 May 1990). "A Bold Woman`s Lesson About The Meritocracy Myth". The Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 27 December 2014. 
  4. ^ Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, 490 U.S. 228, at 237–238.
  5. ^ Id. at 240.
  6. ^ Id., at 241.
  7. ^ Id., at 245.
  8. ^ Id., at 250.
  9. ^ Id., at 253.

Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, 490 U.S. 228, 87-1167 (Supreme Court of the United States 31 October 1988).

See also[edit]