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Landgraf v. USI Film Products

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Brief Fact Summary.

The Civil Rights Act of 1991 (CRA) imposed new liability of employers who engage in discrimination. However, the CRA did not specify if the provision would have a retroactive effect.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

A statute cannot be applied retroactively without a clear congressional intent to give the statute retroactive effect.

Points of Law - Legal Principles in this Case for Law Students.

A federal official's liability will only result from his own neglect in not properly superintending the discharge of his subordinates duties.

View Full Point of Law

The Civil Rights Act of 1991 (CRA) imposed new forms of liability on employers when employers engage in discrimination. Nonetheless, the CRA did not specify whether the new provision would apply retroactively to conduct or litigation that occurred before its enactment. Thus, the Supreme Court of the United States decided to hear the case to determine whether the CRA is binding on cases that were not finally adjudicated as of the CRA’s effective date.


Whether a statute can be applied retroactively without a clear congressional intent to give the statute retroactive effect.


No, a statute cannot be applied retroactively without a clear congressional intent to give the statute retroactive effect.


The majority properly notes that there is a long-standing judicial presumption against the retroactivity of legislative enactments that affect substantive rights in the absence of clear statement to the contrary. Nonetheless, the main issue is what is the specific activity that regulated by a rule, not whether the particular rule affects vested rights or governs substance or procedure. A statute that eradicates forms of prospective relief that were previously available, such as injunctions, make the court’s approach problematic. The purpose of prospective relief is to fix the future and not to fix the past. Thus, the moment the court should determine a statute’s retroactivity of prospective relief is at the time it is ordered.


A statute cannot be applied retroactively without a clear congressional intent to give the statute retroactive effect. There is a presumption against a statute’s retroactive effect, which is founded upon fairness. Society she be able to know what the governing law is to properly conform their conduct to abide by the law. Further, this anti-retroactivity presumption is expressed in several constitutional provisions, such as the Ex Post Facto, Contracts, Takings, and Bill of Attainder Clauses. Due to the vast amount of power vested in the legislature, the legislature has the ability to suddenly interfere with settled expectations without individualized consideration. Also, because the legislature is susceptible to political pressures, there are great risks that can be used to retaliate against unpopular groups or individuals by giving a statute a retroactive effect. Nonetheless, the United States Constitution’s restrictions are of limited. There must be a violation of the provisions retroactive effect to decline to give a statute its intended scope. At times, a retroactive legislation has the ability to serve benign and legitimate purposes. In these circumstances, Congress must make its intention regarding the statute’s retroactive effect clear to ensure that Congress’ determination properly evaluates the benefits of retroactivity against the risk of disruption or unfairness. This determination, whether a statute applies retroactively, is not a simple determination. A statute is not given retroactive effect merely because the statute applies to a particular conduct that predated the statute’s enactment or because the statute is inconsistent with expectations founded in previous law. Instead, the court must determine whether the statute imposes new legal consequences for events that occurred before its enactment. Despite the fact that this procedure opens the door for disagreement in hard cases, the considerations of fair notice, reasonable reliance, and settled expectations offer judges sound guidance. The largest category of cases, where courts have applied a presumption against retroactivity, deal with contractual or property rights, which require predictability and stability. Although legislation is the main means of legal ordering, giving it great deference, prospectivity remains the default rule. Therefore, the CRA should be interpreted to apply only to future conduct.

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