Ward's Cove Packing Co. v. Atonio
Argued January 18, 1989
Decided June 5, 1989
Full case nameWards Cove Packing Company, Incorporated, et al. v. Atonio, et al.
Citations490 U.S. 642 (more)
109 S. Ct. 2115; 104 L. Ed. 2d 733; 1989 U.S. LEXIS 2794; 57 U.S.L.W. 4583; 49 Fair Empl. Prac. Cas. (BNA) 1519; 50 Empl. Prac. Dec. (CCH) ¶ 39,021
Case history
PriorReversed and remanded, 827 F.2d 439. Certiorari to the United States Court of Appeal for the Ninth Circuit, granted
Subsequent827 F.2d 439, reversed and remanded.
To determine whether a disparate-impact case exists, compare racial composition of the at-issue jobs and the racial composition of the qualified population in the relevant labor market.
Court membership
Chief Justice
William Rehnquist
Associate Justices
William J. Brennan Jr. · Byron White
Thurgood Marshall · Harry Blackmun
John P. Stevens · Sandra Day O'Connor
Antonin Scalia · Anthony Kennedy
Case opinions
MajorityWhite, joined by Rehnquist, O'Connor, Scalia, Kennedy
DissentBlackmun, joined by Brennan, Marshall
DissentStevens, joined by Brennan, Marshall, Blackmun
Laws applied
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

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


See also: Cannery Workers and Farm Laborers Union, Local 7

A group of nonwhite cannery workers filed suit in District Court citing Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 complaining that the Wards Cove Packing Company, a company that operated several Alaskan salmon canneries, was using discriminatory hiring practices that resulted in a large number of the skilled permanent jobs that mostly did not involve working in a cannery (referred to as "noncannery" positions) to be filled by white workers, and a large number of the unskilled seasonal cannery jobs to be filled by local nonwhite workers. In this case the nonwhite workers were predominantly native Alaskans and Filipinos (Alaskeros). The District Court found in favor of the company.

The workers appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which reversed the District Court decision, stating the workers had made a prima facie case of disparate impact. The decision was based on statistics provided by the workers that showed a high percentage of nonwhite workers in the cannery jobs and a low percentage of the skilled noncannery jobs filled by nonwhite workers. The court also ruled that if a substantial difference in the racial composition of the available population and the composition of the positions was found, it was up to the claimants to prove that this was due to discriminatory hiring practices.[1]


The company 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.


Soon after the decision, Congress 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 (42 U.S.C. § 2000e 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.

See also