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 U.S.C. 1981)
    • 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 that.
  • 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 under 1981.
  • The Appellate Court affirmed. Patterson appealed.
  • 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 against surplusages.
    • 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 wrong.
  • 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 of 1991.
  • 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!