Racial Discrimination Must Be “But For” Cause in Section 1981 Civil Rights Law Claims

One of the most significant changes in federal racial discrimination cases came with the 2020 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Comcast Corp. v. National Association of African American-Owed Media, et al. News of this precedent was largely eclipsed by the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S., but the impact will be significant in future racial discrimination employment lawsuits. racial discrimination lawyer

For those who may not be familiar,  42 U.S.C. § 1981 of the Civil Rights Act bars race discrimination that is intentional in all forms of contracting. That includes employment. The conflict among lower courts in deciding these cases was whether a plaintiff needed to prove that race discrimination was just one motivating factor among several for the adverse employment action, or whether plaintiff needed to show that race was the “but for” cause. With a “but for” standard, plaintiffs need to prove the adverse outcome wouldn’t have happened “but for” the defendant’s wrongful conduct.

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in November 2019 and issued their decision in March 2020. They held that plaintiffs in Section 1981 cases must meet the “but for” causation standard.

In this case, a Black-owned tv network operator sued a cable company because the latter refused to enter into a contract to carry the plaintiff’s network. The defendant cited a number of legitimate, non-discriminatory business reasons for not entering the contract. The plaintiff, however, argued that despite the possible legitimacy of those reasons, racial bias was also a motivating factor, making defendant’s conduct unlawful.

The trial court granted the cable company’s motion to dismiss on the grounds that plaintiff couldn’t meet the “but for” causation standard. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal (which oversees cases in California, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Alaska, Nevada, Montana, Hawaii and Arizona), however, reversed. Appellate court held that plaintiff only needed to show race placed “some role” in the company declining to enter a contract. Plaintiff had met this standard. This ruling aligned with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. In the 1990s, Title VII was amended expressly to allow plaintiffs to use the “motivating factor” standard. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed. The high court held that lawmakers never specifically adopted the “motivating factor” standard for Section 1981 claims.

So what’s the practical effect of this for racial discrimination employment lawsuits? As our Los Angeles racial discrimination attorneys can explain, the actual impact could be limited because those who have claims under Section 1981 may also have a claim under Title VII, which follows the motivating factor standard.

It’s worth noting that while Section 1981 claims have a four-year statute of limitations, employees must file an EEOC charge within 300 days from the time the decision is challenged. Employees could still file a lawsuit for intentional racial discrimination without filing an EEOC charge, but they’re going to have to meet the more stringent “but for” causation standard.

The bottom line is that the type of racial discrimination case you file will have an impact on the causation standard you must meet. Discrimination cases filed under Section 1981, the Americans with Disabilities Act or the Age Discrimination in Employment Act must meet the “but for” standard, while claims of discrimination filed under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act can meet the lower “motivating factor” standard of proof.

Contact the employment attorneys at Nassiri Law Group, practicing in Orange County, Riverside and Los Angeles. Call 714-937-2020.

Additional Resources:

Comcast Corp. v. National Association of African American-Owned Media, March 23, 2020, U.S. Supreme Court

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