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Hishon v. King & Spaulding

Citation. Hishon v. King & Spalding, 467 U.S. 69, 104 S. Ct. 2229, 81 L. Ed. 2d 59, 52 U.S.L.W. 4627, 34 Fair Empl. Prac. Cas. (BNA) 1406, 34 Empl. Prac. Dec. (CCH) P34,387 (U.S. May 22, 1984)
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Brief Fact Summary.

Petitioner alleges that her failure to be promoted to partner at Defendant law firm was due to her gender, and has brought suit under Title VII. The lower court held that Title VII doesn’t apply to law partnerships; she appeals.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

Title VII prohibits discrimination by employers in the context of any contractual employer/employee relationship, including law partnerships.


Petitioner, Elizabeth Hishon, an associate with Defendant law firm, alleges that she was twice passed up for the opportunity to become a partner at the firm, despite the fact that this privilege was granted “as a matter of course” for almost all of its other associates. She brought a Title VII claim against the firm for discrimination on the basis of sex, and the District Court concluded that Title VII did not apply to the selection of partners in a law partnership. Petitioner appeals.


Did the District Court properly dismiss Petitioner’s Title VII discrimination complaint?


No. Reversed.
Title VII applies to all contractual employment situations. The promise of consideration for partner status was clearly one of the strongest factors inducing Petitioner to accept an associateship with Defendant, and should be considered one of the “privileges” delineated in Title VII.

There is nothing in the text or procedural history of Title VII to suggest that Congress ever intended to exempt partnership decisions from its protections.


Powell: Agrees with reasoning, but does not believe that Title VII should be explicitly extended to the management of a law firm by its partners, as law partners manage their associates via an entirely differently relationship from the usual employer/employee structure.


Despite this holding, many courts have been reluctant to review partnership decisions as a practical matter.

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