Senate Approves Bill Easing Job-Discrimination Lawsuits

By Julie A. Miller — November 06, 1991 3 min read

WASHINGTON--The Senate last week overwhelmingly approved a compromise civil-rights bill that would make it easier for employees to win job-discrimination suits.

The action in the Senate virtually ensures that the measure will become law.

The bill contains most of the provisions sought by civil-rights groups and their backers in the Congress. But to placate the White House, it also would set limits on the amount of damages that can be won by successful plaintiffs and would leave it to federal courts to define a key legal term.

The Senate approved S1745 by a vote of 93 to 5, after adding provisions that would for the first time extend civil-rights protections to Senate employees and political appointees in the executive branch. The bill would establish a grievance procedure whose results would be subject to judicial review.

Senate Democrats--as well as some Republicans who opposed the compromise--claimed the measure is basically identical to the original one that President Bush labeled a “quota bill” and promised to veto.

They said he accepted it to avoid the political fallout from opposing a civil-fights bill in an election year and because proponents had nearly enough votes to override his threatened veto.

“The differences between [previous] bills and this compromise are negligible,” said Senator Dennis DeConcini, Democrat of Arizona.

“What has changed are the circumstances.”

Republican senators and the President himself disputed that assertion.

‘We Didn’t Cave’

“We didn’t cave,” Mr. Bush said during an Oct. 25 press conference. “We worked out in a spirit of compromise a negotiated settlement where I can say to the American people, ‘This is not a quota bill.’”

The legislation would nullify portions of six U.S. Supreme Court decisions that generally made it more difficult for plaintiffs to prevail in job-bias suits, and make related changes in employment law.

The most contentious provisions would reverse the Court’s 1989 decision in Wards Cove v. Atonio by requiring employers to prove that hiring and promotion practices that have an adverse effect on women or minorities are a “business necessity.”

The Administration had argued that earlier drafts would have made the standard of proof so difficult that employers would use quotas to avoid being sued.

The compromise would require employers to “demonstrate that the challenged practice is job-related for the position in question and consistent with business necessity.”

Rather than define the term “business necessity,” as did earlier versions, it instructs courts to define it using the standards the High Court set out in Griggs v. Duke Power Co., a 1971 ruling that was overturned by Wards Cove.

The Griggs ruling required proof that a practice bears a “manifest relationship’’ to job performance--the same wording used in the most recent version of the bill opposed by the Administration.

The legislation does not specifically mention educational requirements for hiring or promotion. Administration officials had argued that the bill would undermine education-reform efforts by prohibiting employers from demanding educational qualifications for many jobs.

The other primary sticking point had been provisions allowing victims of intentional discrimination based on sex, religion, or ethnicity to seek monetary damages, as well as back pay and job reinstatement. The compromise would set damage awards between $50,000 and $300,000, depending on the size of the business. The Administration sought a $150,000 limit, while some bill proponents opposed any limits.

The bill would allow juries to impose damages, while the Administration and business groups sought to give that power to judges only.

The bill would also establish that laws barring race discrimination apply to working conditions as well as hiring practices, and clarify the circumstances under which seniority systems and affirmative-action programs can be challenged.

A version of this article appeared in the November 06, 1991 edition of Education Week as Senate Approves Bill Easing Job-Discrimination Lawsuits