In Comcast Corp. v. National Association of African American-Owned Media, No. 18-1171, __ U.S. __ (March 23, 2020), the Supreme Court held that race-discrimination claims brought under the Civil Rights Act of 1886, 42 U.S.C. § 1981, are subject to a but-for standard of causation.
The Civil Rights Act of 1886, now codified at 42 U.S.C. § 1981, provides that “[a]ll persons … shall have the same right … to make and enforce contracts, to sue, be parties, give evidence, and to the full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of persons and property as is enjoyed by white citizens[.]” The law has been interpreted as, inter alia, prohibiting discrimination because of race in employment and other kinds of contractual relationships.
A similar discrimination law, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, specifically provides for a “motivating factor” causation standard — that is, an employee can prevail on a Title VII race discrimination claim by proving that her race was a “motivating factor for any employment practice, even though other factors also motivated that practice.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(m).
The statutory language of 42 U.S.C. § 1981, however, does not specify the causation standard for proving race discrimination under § 1981.
The causation standard under § 1981 is important for employees because this law is, in some ways, more powerful than Title VII. For example, while Title VII race discrimination claims are subject to caps on compensatory and punitive damages, see 42 U.S.C. § 1981a, race discrimination claims under § 1981 are not subject to damages caps.
An African-American-owned television-network operator (ESN) sought to have Comcast carry its channels. Comcast refused, citing lack of programming demand and various other reasons. ESN sued Comcast for race discrimination under 42 U.S.C. §1981, alleging that Comcast’s refusal to carry ESN’s channels violated the law, which guarantees “[a]ll persons . . . the same right . . . to make and enforce contracts . . . as is enjoyed by white citizens.” 42 U.S.C. § 1981.
The District Court dismissed ESN’s complaint for failing plausibly to show that, “but for” racial animus, Comcast would have contracted with ESN. The Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that ESN needed only to plead facts plausibly showing that race played “some role” in Comcast’s decisionmaking process. Comcast appealed.
The Court’s Decision
The Supreme Court vacated and remanded, holding that a § 1981 plaintiff bears the burden of showing that the plaintiff’s race was a “but-for” cause of its injury.
In so holding, the Court observed that a tort plaintiff typically must prove but-for causation — meaning that the plaintiff’s injury would not have happened in the absence of the offending conduct (in this context, racial animus). See University of Tex. Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar, 570 U. S. 338, 347 (2013) (discussing tort principles and holding that but-for causation applied to Title VII retaliation claims).
ESN argued that § 1981 creates an exception to this general principle, such that a § 1981 plaintiff only bears the burden of showing that race was a “motivating factor” in the defendant’s challenged decision. No. 18-1171 at 3-12. The Court rejected this argument.
First, the court determined that “several clues, taken collectively,” made clear that a but-for causation standard applied to § 1981. For instance, the Court noted that the statute’s text suggested but-for causation: An ordinary English speaker would not say that a plaintiff did not enjoy the “same right” to make contracts “as is enjoyed by white citizens” if race was not a but-for cause affecting the plaintiff’s ability to contract. Id. at 4-8.
The Court went on to discuss the larger structure and history of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 as providing further clues in support of a but-for causation standard. For example, when § 1981 was first enacted, it did not provide a private enforcement mechanism for violations. That right was “judicially created,” decades later, in Johnson v. Railway Express Agency, Inc., 421 U. S. 454, 459 (1975). The Court observed that during the era of Johnson v. Railway Express, the Court usually insisted that the legal elements of “implied” causes of action be at least as demanding as those found in analogous statutory causes of action.
The Court found this rule useful, as a neighboring section of the 1866 Act uses the terms “on account of” and “by reason of,” and these phrases are often held to indicate but-for causation. Another provision provides that in cases not provided for by the 1866 Act, the common law shall govern. The Court noted that back in 1866, the common law usually treated a showing of but-for causation as a prerequisite to a tort suit. The Court further cited some of its own precedents as confirming its assessment that the statute’s language and history called for but-for causation. See, e.g., Johnson, 421 U.S., at 459–460; Buchanan v. Warley, 245 U.S. 60, 78–79 (1917). No. 18-1171 at 4-8.
Second, the Court rejected ESN’s argument that the “motivating factor” causation test in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(m), should also apply to § 1981 cases. The Court observed that it had already rejected attempts to extend Title VII’s “motivating factor” standard to other laws. See, e.g., Gross v. FBL Financial Services, Inc., 557 U.S. 167 (2009) (Age Discrimination in Employment Act). The Court saw no reason to think the motivating factor standard would fit § 1981 claims any better.
Third, the Court further supported its conclusion by discussing the history behind Title VII’s motivating factor standard. The Court emphasized that when the motivating factor test was added to Title VII in the Civil Rights Act of 1991, Congress also amended § 1981 without mentioning “motivating factors.” No. 18-1171 at 10. The Court therefore found that even if ESN was correct that the 1991 amendments clarified that § 1981 addresses not just contractual “outcomes” but the whole contracting “process,” its claim that a process-oriented right necessarily pairs with a motivating factor causal standard was mistaken. No. 18-1171 at 10-11.
Finally, the Court rejected ESN’s argument that the burden-shifting framework of McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973), supported the application of a motivating factor standard to § 1981 claims. Whether or not McDonnell Douglas has some useful role in § 1981 cases, the Court observed that case was decided in a context and at a time when but-for causation was the undisputed test, and it does not mention a motivating factor test. No. 18-1171 at 11-12.
In short, Comcast v. NAAAM held that race-discrimination claims brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1981 are subject to a but-for standard of causation. Although but-for causation does not require a plaintiff to prove racial discrimination was the only cause of an injury, the but-for standard is a somewhat higher standard of causation than the “motivating factor” standard permitted by Title VII. To show but-for causation in the employment context, a § 1981 plaintiff must show that the employment action at issue would not have occurred in the absence of racial discrimination.
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