How the U.S. Supreme Court’s Affirmative Action Ruling Might Affect Employment Discrimination Claims in New Jersey

The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard made significant changes to how many colleges and universities will handle their admissions processes. The court essentially found that race-based affirmative action programs violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This has led to questions about whether the ruling could affect New Jersey employment discrimination claims that rely on Title VII of that statute. It is possible that the Harvard decision will impact how employers approach recruitment, particularly with regard to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts. This could affect broader patterns in hiring, but it is too early to say how — or if — the decision will impact individual hiring decisions.

Title VII prohibits discrimination on the basis of five broad categories: race, color, sex, religion, and national origin. Statutes and Supreme Court decisions have expanded the definitions of some of these terms. For example, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 added discrimination based on pregnancy and childbirth to the definition of sex discrimination. The Supreme Court’s 2020 ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County held that sex discrimination under Title VII includes discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

The Harvard ruling specifically addresses claims of discrimination on the basis of race under Title VI. Over the years, the Supreme Court has identified numerous forms of workplace race discrimination that violate Title VII. This includes both overt and subtle forms of discrimination. In 1971, the court ruled in Griggs v. Duke Power Co. that an employer can violate Title VII even if it had no intent to discriminate based on race. The case involved an employment policy that had a disparate impact on Black job applicants. The aspects of the policy that created the disparity had no reasonable relationship to job duties or performance.

Unlike Title VII, which applies to private employers all over the country, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act only covers “federally assisted programs.” This includes any private college or university that receives federal funding, which is most of them. The plaintiffs in Harvard claimed that affirmative action programs in college admissions that consider race as a factor violated their rights under Title VI.

The Supreme Court ruled in 2003’s Grutter v. Bollinger that these programs did not violate Title VI or the Equal Protection Clause. Just over twenty years later, the Harvard decision has overturned that ruling. While the majority decision, written by Chief Justice Roberts, does not specifically state this, Justice Thomas writes in a concurring opinion that “Grutter is, for all intents and purposes, overruled.”

The Harvard decision does not directly address employment discrimination claims since it relies on a different title in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It could have impacts that, for the moment, are difficult to predict. It could lead, for example, to changes in recruitment policies and practices. Employers may feel a need to reassess DEI initiatives and similar measures. Job applicants and employment attorneys might keep an eye out for possible disparate impact discrimination that may arise from such changes.

Employers that violate workers’ rights under federal or state law might be liable for damages. If your employer has committed unlawful practices, an experienced and knowledgeable employment lawyer can help you assert your rights. The Resnick Law Group represents workers in New Jersey and New York in a variety of employment claims. Please contact us at 973-781-1204, 646-867-7997, or online today to schedule a confidential consultation to see how we can assist you.

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