Patterson v. McClean Credit Union 491 U.S. 164, 109 S. Ct. 2363, 105 L. Ed. 2d 132 (1989)
Patterson was an
African-American woman who worked for McClean. She alleged that McClean's
management discriminated against her for years, and then fired her, all
because of her race.
Patterson sued under the Civil
Rights Act of 1866 (42
§1981 specifically says that, "All
persons...shall have the same right...to make and enforce contracts...as
is enjoyed by white citizens."
Patterson argued that being
denied a promotion was a violation of §1981.
Patterson also argued that
being harassed by management was also actionable under §1981.
Btw, one would have expected
Patterson to have sued under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but that only
covered companies with more than 15 employees, and McClean had less than
The Trial Court found for
McClean. Patterson appealed.
The Trial Judge told the
jury that in order to prevail on her promotion discrimination claim,
petitioner had to prove that she was better qualified than the white employee
who allegedly had received the promotion.
The Trial Court found in
summary judgment that a claim for racial harassment is not actionable
The Appellate Court affirmed.
The US Supreme Court affirmed
in part and reversed in part.
The US Supreme Court
reversed the Trial Court on the promotion discrimination claim.
The Court said that the
jury instruction was wrong, and all Patterson had to do was to prove by
a preponderance of the evidence that she applied for and was qualified
for an available position, that she was rejected, and that McClean filled
the position with a white employee
The US Supreme Court found
that racial harassment relating to the conditions of employment is not
actionable under §1981, because
that provision does not apply to conduct which occurs after the formation
of a contract and which does not interfere with the right to enforce
established contract obligations.
Specifically, the Court
looked to the plain language and
found that, "§1981 is restricted in its scope to
forbidding racial discrimination in the making and enforcement of contracts, it cannot be construed as a
general proscription of discrimination in all aspects of contract
relations. It provides no relief where an alleged discriminatory act does
not involve the impairment of one of the specified rights."
The Court did make a public
statement that Congress should amend the Act.
So basically, calling
someone names or treating them differently is not a contract issue. McClean didn't breach a contract with
Patterson, they just harassed her. Therefore from a plain
language reading of the Statute, it
is not actionable.
The Court found that reading
§1981 the way Patterson argued
would undermine Title VII, because Title VII had more complicated rules for how to bring a
racial harassment claim. If you could sue for essentially the same claim
under §1981, it would make Title VII surplus, and you should not read a Statute to
make another Statute surplus.
That's contrary to the rule
The Court found that there
were already a lot of State laws preventing discrimination, and reading §1981 the way Patterson argued would have created a
Federal standard which would invalidate all the States' laws.
That's called the Doctrine
of Federalism, and is a particular
favorite of Justice Scalia.
In a dissent, it was argued
that the legislative history and purpose shows that §1981 was designed to
be very broad and should be read as broad as possible.
In addition, the dissent
argued that §1981 and Title
VII do not overlap, because Title VII only covers employment, while §1981
covers all types of contracts, even those not related to employment.
Therefore the majority's argument that §1981 makes Title VII surplus is
In this case, through a narrow
reading of §1981, the Court said
that getting harassed at the workplace because of race was not an
actionable claim. Congress fixed this with the Civil Rights Act
In this case, the Majority
very deliberately ignored the legislative history.
The legislative history specifically talked about the problem of
bosses beating their
employees. But now, under the Court's reading, beating your employees
would not be covered by the Statute!