Without ruling on the merits of Allen’s case, the Supreme Court significantly narrowed the scope for future discrimination claims.
The U.S. Supreme Court sided with Comcast in a racial discrimination suit filed against the provided by black media mogul Byron Allen.
In a unanimous decision, the justices found that a lower court applied the wrong legal standard in determining whether Allen’s discrimination lawsuit could proceed. For Allen to have a case, the justices said, he’d have to show that race was the determining reason Comcast refused to carry his channels and programming.
“To prevail, a plaintiff must initially plead and ultimately prove that, but for race, it would not have suffered the loss of a legally protected right,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote on behalf of the court.
While the Supreme Court didn’t discard Allen’s suit outright, it did send it back to the federal Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in California for reconsideration.
Comcast has, of course, treated the suit’s retreat as a clear victory. In a statement, a company spokesperson said the Supreme Court had, in effect, upheld clear-cut principles that have been extant for years.
“We are pleased the Supreme Court unanimously restored certainty on the standard to bring and prove civil rights claims,” Comcast said. “The well-established framework that has protected civil rights for decades continues. The nation’s civil rights laws have not changed with this ruling; they remain the same as before the case was filed.”
The lawsuit, says The Philadelphia Inquirer, was closely watched by civil rights attorneys and activists. According to the Inquirer, Comcast’s win is expected to make it substantially harder for other plaintiffs to bring and win racial discrimination suits. That is despite the justices’ refusal to rule on the merits of Allen’s suit.
In his complaint, Allen—a black entertainment executive worth a half-billion dollars—alleged that Comcast discriminated against him by refusing to carry his content, much of which caters to African-American viewers.
In essence, suggests the Inquirer, the justices had to make a difficult decision: whether a racial discrimination suit must evidence that race was the determining reason a contract decision was made, or whether someone like Allen can allege that race was a “motivating factor.”
Gorsuch’s opinion—that a “plaintiff must initially plead and ultimately prove that, but for race it would not have suffered the loss of a legally protected right”—defers to the first criteria. Thus, plaintiffs without Allen’s immense financial means—and with more apparent grievances—may struggle to win comparatively straightforward lawsuits under precedent.
“No doubt, this ruling may shut the courthouse doors on some discrimination victims who, at the complaint stage, may simply be without the full range of evidence needed to meet the court’s tougher standard,” Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law attorney Kristen Clarke told The Philadelphia Inquirer.