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Wards Cove Packing Co. v. Atonio, 490 U.S. 642 (1989), was a court case argued before the United States Supreme Courtmarker on January 18, 1989. It concerned employment discrimination and was decided on June 5, 1989.

Prior History

A group of nonwhite cannery workers filed suit in District Court citing Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 complaining that Wards Cove Packing Co. owner of Alaskan salmon canneries, was using discriminatory hiring practices that resulted in a large number of the skilled noncannery jobs to be filled by white workers and a large number of the unskilled cannery jobs to be filled by nonwhites. In this case the nonwhite workers were predominantly native Alaskans and Filipinos. The District Court case was found in favor of the defendants, Wards Cove Packing Co.

The Plaintiffs appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit which reversed the District Court decision stating the Petitioners, the Plaintiffs in the District Court, had made a prima facie case of disparate impact. The decision was based on statistics provided by the Petitioners that showed a high percentage of nonwhite workers in the cannery jobs and a low percentage of the noncannery jobs filled by nonwhite workers.


Wards Cove Packing Co. then appealed the Court of Appeals ruling to the United States Supreme Court. The Supreme Court determined that the Court of Appeals had erred by using inappropriate statistics and comparison. The majority determined that the proper comparison was to compare the percentage of nonwhite workers in noncannery jobs with the percentage of the available labor pool that were nonwhite and who had the appropriate skills to perform the noncannery jobs.

The Supreme Court remanded the case back to the Court of Appeals with instructions to use the more appropriate comparison. Further if on remand the Respondents did establish a prima facie disparate-impact case the Petitioners would then need to "produce evidence of a legitimate business justification" for the hiring practices that created the disparity.

Applicable cases

Congress then Amended Title VII with the Civil Rights Act of 1991 to counter the Supreme Court's holding in Ward's Cove, thereby nullifying the case's precedent. The bill, in part, reads:

The purposes of this Act are-

  1. to provide appropriate remedies for intentional discrimination and unlawful harassment in the workplace;
  2. to codify the concepts of "business necessity" and "job related" enunciated by the Supreme Court in Griggs v. Duke Power Co., 401 U.S. 424 (1971), and in the other Supreme Court decisions prior to Wards Cove Packing Co. v. Atonio, 490 U.S. 642 (1989);
  3. to confirm statutory authority and provide statutory guidelines for the adjudication of disparate impact suits under title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ( et seq.); and
  4. to respond to recent decisions of the Supreme Court by expanding the scope of relevant civil rights statutes in order to provide adequate protection to victims of discrimination.

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