Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Arabian American Oil Company
Decided on Mar. 26, 1991; 499 US 244


A. Issues Discussed:  Civil Rights (federal), employment discrimination

B. Legal Question Presented: 

Does Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 apply extraterritorially to regulate the employment practices of United States employers who employ United States citizens abroad?


A. Background:

Boureslan, a naturalized United States citizen originally from Lebanon, worked in Saudi Arabia.  After 5 years of employment he was discharged by his employer, Arabian American Oil Company (Respondent), a corporation organized in the United States. After filing a complaint with Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (Petitioner), he instituted suit in District Court, seeking relief under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on the ground that he had been discriminated against because of his race, religion, and national origin. In dismissing this claim, the court ruled that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction because Title VII's protections does not extend to United States citizens employed abroad by American employers. The Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court's decision and the United States Supreme Court granted certiorari.
B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
Kenneth W. Starr argued the cause for Petitioner.
With him on the briefs were Assistant Attorney General Dunne, Deputy Solicitor General Roberts, Stephen L. Nightingale, Donald R. Livingston, Gwendolyn Young Reams, Michael A. Maness and Gerald M. Birnberg.
Paul L. Friedman argued the case for Respondent.

With him on the brief were Thomas J. O'Sullivan, Anne D. Smith, John D. Roady, V. Scott Kneese, and Gregory B. Richards. 
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable


Opposing Side
Briefs of amici curiae urging reversal were filed for the American Civil Liberties Union, et al., by Jane M. Picker, Sidney Picker, Jr., Isabelle Katz Pinzler, and John A. Powell; for the International Human Rights Law Group by Robert Plotkin and Steven M. Schneebaum; for the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law by Gary B. Born, Robert F. Mullen, David S. Tatel, Norman Redlich, Thomas J. Henderson, and Richard T. Seymour; and for NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., et al., by Julius LeVonne Chambers and Charles Stephen Ralston. Briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance were filed for the Equal Employment Advisory Council by Robert E. Williams, Douglas S. McDowell, and Edward E. Potter; for the Rule of Law Committee, et al., by Cecil J. Olmstead; for the Society for Human Resources Management by Kenneth Kirschner, John E. Parauda, and Lawrence Z. Lorber; and for the Washington Legal Foundation by Jeffrey I. Zuckerman, Daniel J. Popeo, and Paul D. Kamenar.

"It is a longstanding principle of American law that legislation of Congress, unless a contrary intent appears, is meant to apply only within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States... [This] is a valid approach whereby unexpressed congressional intent may be ascertained... It serves to protect against unintended clashes between our laws and those of other nations which could result in international discord... We assume that Congress legislates against the backdrop of the presumption against extraterritoriality. Therefore, unless there is the affirmative intention of the Congress clearly expressed, we must presume it is primarily concerned with domestic conditions...
The intent of Congress as to the extraterritorial application of this statute must be deduced by inference from boilerplate language which can be found in any number of congressional acts, none of which have ever been held to apply overseas... We have repeatedly held that even statutes that contain broad language in their definitions of 'commerce' that expressly refer to 'foreign commerce' do not apply abroad...
We are of the view that, even when considered in combination with petitioners' other arguments, the EEOC's [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] interpretation is insufficiently weighty to overcome the presumption against extraterritorial application.

Our conclusion today is buttressed by the fact that '[w]hen it desires to do so, Congress knows how to place the high seas within the jurisdictional reach of a statute...' Congress's awareness of the need to make a clear statement that a statute applies overseas is amply demonstrated by the numerous occasions on which it has expressly legislated the extraterritorial application of a statute.
Petitioners have failed to present sufficient affirmative evidence that Congress intended Title VII to apply abroad. Accordingly, the judgment of the Court of Appeals is Affirmed.

Held: Title VII does not apply extraterritorially to regulate the employment practices of United States firms that employ American citizens abroad. Petitioners' evidence, while not totally lacking in probative value, falls short of demonstrating the clearly expressed affirmative congressional intent that is required to overcome the well-established presumption against statutory extraterritoriality."
Justice Vote: 3 Pro vs. 6 Con

  • Rehnquist, W. Con (Wrote majority opinion)
  • White, B. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Souter, D. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Kennedy, A. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • O'Connor, S. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Scalia, A. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Stevens, J. Pro (Joined minority opinion)
  • Blackmun, H. Pro (Joined minority opinion)
  • Marshall, T. Pro (Wrote dissenting opinion)

The ACLU filed as amicus in support of reversal.  The United States Supreme Court affirmed in favor of the Arabian American Oil Company by a 6-3 vote; giving the ACLU an apparent loss.