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Landmark: Griggs v. Duke Power Co.

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12/14/70
Economic Justice | Employment Discrimination

In 1971, the Supreme Court issued a unanimous ruling in Griggs v. Duke Power, which transformed our nation’s work places.  As a result of LDF’s advocacy, the Supreme Court embraced a powerful legal tool – now known as the “disparate impact” framework – that has proved essential in the fight to eradicate arbitrary and artificial barriers to equal employment opportunity for all individuals, regardless of their race. 

Listen to the oral argument .mp3

In Griggs, LDF represented a group of thirteen African-American employees who worked at the Duke Power Company’s Dan River Steam Station, a power-generating facility located in Draper, North Carolina.  Duke Power had a long history of segregating employees by race.  At the Steam Station, the best jobs were reserved for whites.  African-Americans were relegated to the labor department, where the highest-paid worker earned less than the lowest-paid employee in the other four departments where only whites worked. 

Shortly after Congress passed Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which made it illegal for employers to discriminate on the basis of race, Duke Power stopped expressly restricting African-Americans to the labor department and announced new standards for hiring, promotion, and transfers.  In order to work in positions outside of the labor department, Duke Power now required a high school diploma or scores on standardized IQ tests equal to those of the average high school graduate.  These new requirements were not an improvement, however.  They effectively perpetuated the discriminatory policies that Duke Power had utilized prior to the enactment of Title VII.  Although the testing and diploma criteria disqualified African-Americans at a substantially higher rate than whites, Duke Power never established that they successfully measured ability to do the jobs in question.  Indeed, the white employees hired before the requirements were imposed performed entirely satisfactorily. 

In December 1970, Jack Greenberg, who succeeded Thurgood Marshall as President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF), presented argument in the Supreme Court on behalf of the African-American employees.  Another critical member of the litigation team was Julius Chambers, who later became LDF’s third Director-Counsel.

In a groundbreaking decision, the Supreme Court ruled against Duke Power.  It held that Title VII “proscribes not only overt discrimination but also practices that are fair in form, but discriminatory in operation.”  The Court emphasized that Title VII in no way prohibits testing or diploma requirements for hiring or promotions.  Indeed, when they are properly developed and used, tests and other employment criteria can be effective, efficient means for employers to evaluate applicants.  But as the Court explained in Griggs, “What Congress has commanded is that any tests used must measure the person for the job and not the person in the abstract.”  The Court therefore held that when an employment practice operates to exclude African-Americans or other racial minorities, that practice is prohibited unless the employer can show that it fulfills a genuine business need and is a valid measure of an applicant’s ability to learn or perform the job in question.  Duke Power’s practices failed to meet these standards. 

Twenty years after Griggs, Congress reaffirmed the continuing need for the robust antidiscrimination safeguards.  The 1991 Civil Rights Act codified the “disparate impact” framework first applied in Griggs.  LDF’s victory therefore continues to ensure that employees may challenge not only overt discrimination but also job-selection procedures “that operate as ‘built-in headwinds’ for minority groups and are unrelated to measuring job capability.”