The Burger Court (1969–86)
What happened in the McDonnell Douglas case?
Percy Green, an African American, worked for McDonnell Douglas for twelve years as a mechanic and laboratory technician. In 1964, he was laid off as part of a general reduction in force. Green, a civil rights activist, contended that the company’s layoff policy was racially discriminatory. Green and other members of the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) engaged in a “stall-in” by stalling their cars on the main roads leading to the entrance of the McDonnell Douglas plant. Another civil rights group of which Green was a leading member participated in a “lock-in” in which members padlocked the doors of McDonnell Douglas, thereby preventing employees from leaving. Shortly after these protest activities, Green applied for a mechanics position. He was not rehired. Green sued McDonnell Douglas, contending that the company refused to rehire him because of his race and participation in civil rights activities.
A federal court rejected his claim, finding that the company refused to rehire him for illegal demonstrations rather than legitimate civil rights activity. An appeals court reversed the decision, claiming that Green should have been afforded the opportunity to rebut the company’s stated reason for rejecting him.
The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Green should have been given “a fair opportunity to show that petitioner’s [McDonnell Douglas] stated reason” for rejecting him was pretextual or false. The Court said that McDonnell Douglas could refuse to rehire a former employee who was engaged in disruptive acts, “but only if this criterion is applied alike to members of all races.” The Court explained: “In short, on the retrial respondent [Green] must be given a full and fair opportunity to demonstrate by competent evidence that the presumptively valid reasons for his rejection were in fact a coverup for a racially discriminatory decision.”