By the late 1980’s, the legal battles concerning employment discrimination had become increasingly mature and several cases had been decided by the United States Supreme Court favorable to employers. In the Civil Rights Act of 1991, Congress overruled several of those decisions and further expanded discrimination laws in ways favorable to employees, including in the areas of access to a jury and damages that were sought by plaintiffs.The Civil Rights Act of 1991 modified several discrimination laws enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”). Before the law was enacted, all discrimination and harassment cases were tried to a judge, but after the 1991 amendment, plaintiffs could try their case to a jury. And, for the first time, successful plaintiffs could recover compensatory damages for emotional distress and punitive damages, though there were caps on those damages depending on the size of the employer.
As an example of the judicial activity that prompted the Congressional response in 1991, the Supreme Court in Ward’s Cove Packing Co. v. Antonio (1989) held that an employer could avoid liability in disparate impact cases by proving business justification for the practice at issue. In Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins (1989), the Supreme Court held that even where a plaintiff proves the employer was motivated by discrimination, the employer can avoid liability by showing it would have acted similarly with its non-discriminatory motive. These were viewed as pro-employer decisions at the time.
The Civil Rights Act of 1991 overruled significant aspects of both decisions and was considered pro-employee legislation. The law on disparate impact was returned to a pre-Ward’s Cove position. In response to Price Waterhouse, the law made clear that the burden is for the plaintiff to show that discrimination was a motivating factor. The law also overruled aspects of several other Supreme Court decisions.
The law further broadened the scope of the anti-discrimination law to include employees of Congress, high level political appointees and citizens who were employed by American companies abroad.
Although the Civil Rights Act of 1991 was a technical and often confusing legislative potpourri of amendments to existing law and correction to judicial holdings, the lasting impact was a very positive one for employees and a continuation of the philosophical effort first embraced by the original legislation in 1964.