Anderson v. City of Bessemer, NC
Decided on Mar. 19, 1985; 470 US 564

Court of Appeals finds District Court's gender discrimination ruling "clearly erroneous"


A. Issues Discussed: Civil Rights (gender), 9th amendment

B. Legal Question Presented:

Was the Court of Appeals correct in holding the District Court's finding of discrimination to be clearly erroneous?

A. Background:

In 1975, a five-member committee set out to hire a new Recreation Director for Bessemer City, North Carolina (respondent). Four of the five committee members were men. The committee offered the position to Mr. Donald Kincaid. All four men on the committee voted to offer the job to Mr. Kincaid; the only female member of the committee voted for the petitioner (Phyllis Anderson).

Believing that the committee had passed over her in favor of a less qualified candidate solely because she was a woman, petitioner filed a Title VII action. The District Court held petitioner had been denied employment by respondent because of her gender.

The District Court found that the petitioner was the most qualified candidate, that the committee had been biased against hiring a woman, and that the committee's explanations for its choice of Mr. Kincaid were pretextual. The court concluded that petitioner had met her burden of establishing that she had been denied the position of Recreation Director because of her gender, and awarded petitioner back-pay and attorney's fees.

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the District Court's ruling of discrimination. In the view of the Court of Appeals, three of the District Court's crucial findings were clearly erroneous. As a result, the District Court erred in finding that petitioner had been discriminated against on account of her gender.

The US Supreme Court granted certiorari to review the case.
B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
Jonathan Wallas argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the briefs were John T. Nockelby, J. LeVonne Chambers, O. Peter Sherwood, and Eric Schnapper. Philip M. Van Hoy argued the cause for respondent. With him on the brief were Eugene Gressman and Arthur C. Blue III.
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
Opposing Side
Joan E. Bertin, E. Richard Larson, Burt Neuborne, and Isabelle Katz Pinzler filed a brief for the American Civil Liberties Union et al. as amici curiae urging reversal.

Carolyn S. Corwin argued the cause for the United States et al. as amici curiae urging reversal. With her on the brief were Solicitor General Lee, Deputy Solicitor General Wallace, Johnny J. Butler, and Philip B. Sklover.
No amici curiae briefs were filed on behalf of Respondent.

"If the district court's account of the evidence is plausible in light of the record viewed in its entirety, the court of appeals may not reverse it even though convinced that, had it been sitting as the trier of fact, it would have weighed the evidence differently. This is so even when the district court's findings do not rest on credibility determinations, but are based on physical or documentary evidence or inferences from other facts. When findings are based on determinations regarding the credibility of witnesses, Rule 52(a) demands even greater deference to the trial court's finding...

Application of the above principles to the facts of this case discloses that the Court of Appeals erred in its employment of the clearly erroneous standard. The District Court's finding that petitioner was better qualified was entitled to deference, notwithstanding it was not based on credibility determinations, and the record contains nothing that mandates a holding that the finding was clearly erroneous. As to the District Court's finding that petitioner was the only applicant asked questions regarding her spouse's feelings about her application for the position, the Court of Appeals erred in failing to give due regard to the District Court's ability to interpret and discern the credibility of oral testimony, especially that of the woman member of the selection committee, whose testimony the District Court felt supported the finding. Given that that finding was not clearly erroneous, the District Court's finding of bias cannot be termed erroneous. It is supported not only by the treatment of petitioner in her interview but also by the testimony of one committee member that he believed it would have been difficult for a woman to perform the job, and by evidence that another member solicited applications only from men...

Held: The Court of Appeals misapprehended and misapplied the clearly erroneous standard, and accordingly erred in denying petitioner relief under Title VII... [R]eversed."
Justice Vote: 9 Pro vs. 0 Con

  • White, B. Pro (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Burger, W. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Brennan, W. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Marshall, T. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Rehnquist, W. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Stevens, J. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • O'Connor, S. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Powell, L. Pro (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • Blackmun, H. Pro (Wrote concurring opinion)

The ACLU filed as amicus urging reversal; the US Supreme Court reversed the ruling of the lower court in a 9-0 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent win.