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By: Michael Hill
The U.S. Supreme Court is poised to answer the question of where to draw the line when a decision is motivated in part by race discrimination. Must the plaintiff show the decision would not have been made but for his or her race, or is it sufficient to show that race was one factor behind the decision, even if the same decision would have been made for other, race-neutral reasons?
The case at issue, Comcast Corp. v. National Assoc. of African American-Owned Media, is not actually an employment discrimination case, but the Supreme Court’s decision will impact the realm of employment law because of the statute at issue, 42 U.S.C. § 1981 (“Section 1981”), prohibits race discrimination in making and enforcing contracts (which includes employment contracts).
The issue is whether Section 1981 requires “but for” causation, or whether a “mixed motive” analysis can be used. In Comcast, an African American-owned television network operator sued the cable company, alleging Comcast’s refusal to contract with the networks was racially motivated. The federal district court in California dismissed the case three times at the pleading stage, holding the complaints failed to allege facts to show Comcast had no legitimate business reasons for its decision not to contract with the networks. On appeal, a three-judge panel at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously reversed, holding a Section 1981 claim can proceed as long as race is alleged to have been one factor in the contract decision, even if there were other, race-neutral factors that would have led to the same decision.
The Supreme Court’s decision in Comcast will have a significant impact on the amount of damages available in cases alleges race discrimination in employment. Race discrimination claims under Section 1981 frequently are pled in tandem with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Title VII was amended in 1991 expressly to allow for “mixed motive” claims, but the only forms of relief available under a Title VII “mixed motive” claim are declaratory relief and attorney’s fees – no damages, back pay, or right to reinstatement. The language of Section 1981, however, contains no such limitation. Also, unlike Title VII, damages under Section 1981 are not capped; the statute of limitations is longer; and there is no requirement to submit the claim to the EEOC before suing in court. Thus, if the Supreme Court rules that Section 1981 covers “mixed motive” claims (and not just claims of “but for” discrimination), then claims alleging “mixed motive” race discrimination could become more valuable (and thus more costly to defend).
If you have questions or would like more information, please contact Michael Hill at [email protected].