University of Michigan Law School
Civil Rights Litigation Clearinghouse
new search
page permalink
Case Name Atonio v. Wards Cove Packing Co., Inc. EE-WA-0120
Docket / Court 74-CV-00145-JLQ ( W.D. Wash. )
State/Territory Washington
Case Type(s) Equal Employment
Case Summary
This case predates PACER, so we do not have a docket. Information from the case was found in court opinions.

After unsuccessfully pursuing administrative resolution of employment discrimination charges with the EEOC, a group of nonwhite, U.S. citizen cannery workers from Alaska filed ... read more >
This case predates PACER, so we do not have a docket. Information from the case was found in court opinions.

After unsuccessfully pursuing administrative resolution of employment discrimination charges with the EEOC, a group of nonwhite, U.S. citizen cannery workers from Alaska filed this putative class action in 1974 in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. (Summarized in findings of fact in 1983, 1983 WL 651.) The plaintiffs' disparate treatment and disparate impact claims alleged that the canneries' nepotistic hiring practices excluded nonwhite employees from better-paying, skilled employment opportunities and promotions. As summarized later in the litigation, 10 F.3d 1485, they also alleged that the housing and mess halls routinely segregated whites from Alaska natives. The Supreme Court later succinctly put it that plaintiffs claimed that these practices were responsible for racial stratification and that the defendants denied them these opportunities on the basis of race. The case was assigned to District Judge Walter T. McGovern. The district court certified the class as all nonwhite individuals employed since March 20, 1971 by Ward Cove Packing Company, Bumble Bee Seafoods division of Castle & Cooke, Inc., and Columbia Wards Fisheries at the Alitak and Ekuk canneries (1983 WL 651). By the appearance of courts' analysis of the issues throughout the life of the case, it appears that the plaintiffs requested injunctive and individual relief, plus attorneys' fees and costs.

Before 1982, the plaintiffs amended the complaint. Subsequently, the defendants filed a motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction, claiming that the amendment did not provide sufficient notice to two of the named defendants within the original administrative complaint to the EEOC. The plaintiffs appealed. On March 31, 1982, the Ninth Circuit held for the plaintiffs: the original administrative complaint did sufficiently place the defendant Wards Cove on notice and the plaintiffs should have been allowed to amend the complaint. The claims against Wards Cove were reinstated and the case proceeded. 703 F.2d 329.

On remand, the court held a bench trial before Judge Quackenbush. The workers provided statistics that showed a high percentage of nonwhite workers in cannery jobs and a low percentage of nonwhite workers in skilled-labor positions. On November 4, 1983, the court held that the defendants had not discriminated on the basis of race in their allocation of unskilled positions. It also found that the hiring, firing, promotion, and paying practices at issue and the housing and messing facilities were not discriminatory on the basis of race. Judgment was entered for the defendants. 1983 WL 651.

The plaintiffs appealed to a three-judge panel in the Ninth Circuit. They claimed that the court did not give sufficient weight to the statistical evidence and evidence of nepotism presented at trial. On August 16, 1985, judges Choy, Anderson, and Tang affirmed that the district court's findings were not clearly erroneous. The plaintiffs had not established wide-ranging discrimination and statistics, while important circumstantial evidence, are "inherently slippery." A disparate impact analysis was properly withheld at the district court level. 768 F.2d 1120.

However, in November 1985, the opinion was withdrawn and the Ninth Circuit granted rehearing of the case en banc. On February 23, 1987, the en banc court assessed the language and intent behind Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and concluded that a disparate impact analysis may be applied to challenge subjective employment practices. In order to merit this analysis, plaintiffs must prove a causal connection between the practices and the demonstrated impact on members of the protected class. The court returned the case to the appellate panel for review in light of this holding. 810 F.2d 1477. On September 2, 1987, the panel applied the disparate impact analysis and held that the plaintiff's statistics did support an inference of discrimination in the defendant's hiring practices. In a victory for the plaintiffs, it remanded the case back to the district court for a review of the defendant's business necessity for those practices. Findings on individual claims were still premature and required further proceedings. 827 F.2d 439.

The defendants sought review by the Supreme Court. On June 30, 1988, the Court granted the petition for the defendants' first three questions and denied review of all others. 487 U.S. 1232 (and subsequently denied rehearing in September that year). In the merits case, many amicus briefs were filed for both parties: for the petitioners, the Solicitor General, Assistant Attorney General, and Deputy Assistant Attorneys General, as well as the Chamber of Commerce filed briefs. Amicus briefs from the ACLU, NAACP, and LDF were filed on behalf of the workers.

In Wards Cove Packing Co. v. Atonio, issued on June 5, 1989, the Supreme Court held that the Ninth Circuit misunderstood the intent of Title VII. Apprehensive of relying on the plaintiffs' statistics of racial disparity alone to establish a prima facie case, the Court expressed concerns that the Ninth Circuit's disparate impact analysis would lead to racial quotas in the work force. The proper analysis would have to compare the percentage of nonwhite workers in noncannery jobs with data of the percentage of the relevant labor market that was nonwhite and qualified to perform those jobs. The decision was reversed and remanded back to the district court. 490 U.S. 642.

On remand, the parties submitted briefs and oral arguments were heard on July 27, 1990. Based on the standards set forth by the Supreme Court, on January 23, 1991, the district court held that the plaintiffs failed to meet their burden of a prima facie case of disparate impact. The court dismissed the plaintiffs' claims with prejudice and awarded the defendant's attorneys' fees and costs. 1991 WL 67529.

The plaintiffs appealed. Ten months after the district court dismissed the case but before the appeal was argued, Congress enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1991, essentially reversing the Supreme Court's holding. The amendments to the Act permitted plaintiffs to challenge an employer's decision-making process as an employment practice causing a disparate impact. The Act also placed the burden on employers to show that a practice causing disparate impact was job related and consistent with business necessity. However, the 1991 Act also included a provision that it would not apply to disparate impact cases filed before March 1, 1975 and for which an initial decision was rendered after October 30, 1983. This provision specifically targeted this case--so the 1991 Act basically overruled the Supreme Court's holding for every case but this one. The plaintiffs' appeal challenged the constitutionality of this provision.

In December 1993, the Ninth Circuit applied a rational basis analysis to the provisions and held that though it affected the plaintiffs' due process and equal protection rights, the injuries did not amount to a constitutional violation. The 1991 Amendments were constitutional. The court further found that the district court did not err in its holding under the Supreme Court's strict causation requirement. However, it did find that with respect to allegations of separate hiring channels, racially-segregated housing, and the race-labelling of jobs, housing, and messing, that the district court's disposal of those claims was in error. The court reversed in part, vacated the award of the defendant's costs, and remanded those claims back to the district court for review. 10 F.3d 1485.

The plaintiff workers sought review by the Supreme Court, but on October 3, 1994, the petition was denied. 513 U.S. 809.

On August 9, 1999, the district court dismissed the remaining remanded claims with prejudice. It held that evidence of separate hiring channels was purely anecdotal, race-labeling did not create a disparate impact, and segregated housing based on department, work hours, and arrival time was a legitimate business goal. The plaintiffs appealed. On December 26, 2001, the Ninth Circuit held that these findings were not clearly erroneous and affirmed dismissal of the complaint with prejudice. 275 F.3d 797. The case is closed.

Chelsea Rinnig - 07/18/2018

compress summary

- click to show/hide ALL -
Issues and Causes of Action
click to show/hide detail
Constitutional Clause
Due Process
Equal Protection
Discharge / Constructive Discharge / Layoff
Other Conditions of Employment (including assignment, transfer, hours, working conditions, etc)
Language discrimination
National origin discrimination
Race discrimination
EEOC Intervened in Private Suit
Disparate Impact
Disparate Treatment
Pattern or Practice
Plaintiff Type
EEOC Plaintiff
American Indian/Alaskan Native
Asian/Pacific Islander
Causes of Action 42 U.S.C. § 1981
Title VII (including PDA), 42 U.S.C. § 2000e
Defendant(s) Bumble Bee Seafoods
Columbia Wards Fisheries
Wards Cove Packing, Co.
Plaintiff Description Nonwhite Alaskan citizens who were employed since March 20, 1971 by Wards Cove Packing Company, Bumble Bee Seafoods division of Castle & Cooke, Inc., and Columbia Wards Fisheries at the Alitak and Ekuk salmon canneries.
Class action status sought Yes
Class action status granted Yes
Filed Pro Se No
Prevailing Party Defendant
Public Int. Lawyer No
Nature of Relief None
Source of Relief None
Filed 1974
Case Closing Year 2001
Case Ongoing No
Additional Resources
click to show/hide detail
  The Oyez Project: Wards Cove Packing v. Atonio, 490 US 642 (1989)
Date: Jun. 5, 1989
By: Oyez Project (IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law)
[ Detail ] [ External Link ]

No docket sheet currently in the collection
General Documents
Opinion (1983 WL 651) (W.D. Wash.)
EE-WA-0120-0001.pdf | WESTLAW | Detail
Date: 11/04/1983
Source: Westlaw
Opinion (768 F.2d 1120)
EE-WA-0120-0002.pdf | WESTLAW| LEXIS | Detail
Date: 08/16/1985
Source: Westlaw
Opinion (810 F.2d 1477)
EE-WA-0120-0003.pdf | WESTLAW| LEXIS | Detail
Date: 02/23/1987
Source: Westlaw
Opinion (827 F.2d 439)
EE-WA-0120-0004.pdf | WESTLAW| LEXIS | Detail
Date: 09/02/1987
Source: Westlaw
Brief for the Chamber of Commerce of the United States of America as Amicus Curiae Supporting Petitioners (1988 WL 1026063)
EE-WA-0120-0012.pdf | WESTLAW | Detail
Date: 09/09/1988
Source: Westlaw
Brief for the United States as Amicus Curiae Supporting Petitioners (1988 WL 1026056)
EE-WA-0120-0009.pdf | WESTLAW | Detail
Date: 10/01/1988
Source: Westlaw
Brief of Amicus Curiae National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (1988 WL 1026079)
EE-WA-0120-0010.pdf | WESTLAW | Detail
Date: 11/04/1988
Source: Westlaw
Brief for the American Civil Liberties Union, National Women’s Law Center, Now Legal Defense and Education Fund, Women’s Legal Defense Fund, Amici Curiae, on Behalf of Respondents (1988 WL 1026070)
EE-WA-0120-0011.pdf | WESTLAW | Detail
Date: 11/04/1988
Source: Westlaw
Opinion (490 U.S. 642)
EE-WA-0120-0005.pdf | WESTLAW| LEXIS | Detail
Date: 06/05/1989
Source: Westlaw
Opinion (1991 WL 67529) (W.D. Wash.)
EE-WA-0120-0006.pdf | WESTLAW | Detail
Date: 01/23/1991
Source: Westlaw
Opinion (10 F.3d 1485)
EE-WA-0120-0007.pdf | WESTLAW| LEXIS | Detail
Date: 12/07/1993
Source: Westlaw
Opinion (275 F.3d 797)
EE-WA-0120-0008.pdf | WESTLAW| LEXIS | Detail
Date: 12/26/2001
Source: Westlaw
show all people docs
Judges Anderson, J. Blaine (D. Idaho, Ninth Circuit) show/hide docs
Other Lawyers Clegg, Roger (District of Columbia) show/hide docs
Flynn, David K. (District of Columbia) show/hide docs
Fried, Charles (District of Columbia) show/hide docs
Hankins, Grover G. (Maryland) show/hide docs
Moss, Kary L. (Michigan) show/hide docs
Pinzler, Isabelle Katz (District of Columbia) show/hide docs
Powell, John A. (New York) show/hide docs
Stark, Lisa J. (District of Columbia) show/hide docs
Taranto, Richard Gary (District of Columbia) show/hide docs
Walters, Samuel M. (Maryland) show/hide docs

- click to show/hide ALL -

new search
page permalink

- top of page -