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Hishon v. King

Significance

For firms in other industries, this meant that the offering of partnerships was subject to the same scrutiny; for Hishon, the ruling only meant that she could sue King & Spalding for the alleged discrimination.

In 1972, Elizabeth Anderson Hishon began working as an associate lawyer for King & Spalding, a powerful Atlanta law firm. According to Hishon, during King & Spalding's recruitment of her for the position, she was told that advancement to partnership after five or six years was "a matter of course" for associates and that she would be considered on a "fair and equal basis" for the partnership. This, she said, was key in her decision to work at King & Spalding. Hishon was twice considered and rejected for a partnership with the firm after which she was fired in 1979, under the firm's practice of firing associates who had not made partnership within certain parameters. On 19 November 1979, Hishon filed a complaint of gender discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which states that an employer cannot discriminate on the basis of gender, race, religion, or nationality.

The commission issued a notice of Hishon's right to sue, which she exerted in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia in 1980 for back pay and compensatory damages, rather than fulfillment as a partner. Atlanta Federal District Judge Newell Edenfield dismissed the suit finding Title VII could not be applied to partnerships. According to an article in Time, Edenfield stated that "to coerce a mismatched or unwanted partnership too closely resembles . . . the enforcement of shotgun weddings." Hishon appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, but it agreed with the lower court's decision.

Hishon then turned to the Supreme Court to review the case, also known as taking the case on certiorari. On 22 May 1984, the Court reached a unanimous verdict. In an opinion written by Justice Burger, the Court stated that Title VII was applicable to partnerships, and therefore Hishon had a right to sue for alleged discrimination. This decision was based on the Court's interpretation of a partnership as a benefit of employment, which is covered by Title VII. As such, the decision also applied to minorities whether based in nationality, race, or religion. The Court also noted that the historical interpretation of Title VII and related legislation did not support the assumption that Congress intended to exempt partnerships. Justice Powell wrote a concurring opinion, noting that the decision did not necessarily extend to the management of a law firm by its partners.

Rather than going ahead with the suit, Elizabeth Anderson Hishon and King & Spalding ended up settling out of court in June of 1984. In an article in Dun's Business Month it was noted that "each party continues to believe in the correctness of its position." In any case, the Supreme Court's ruling, written as broadly as it was, was interpreted as impacting firms in a variety of industries such as architecture, advertising, accounting, consulting, and engineering, all of which tend to be organized as partnerships.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1981 to 1988Hishon v. King - Significance