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Race Discrimination Claims under § 1981

What is racial discrimination?

Discrimination is the intentional refusal of or interference with an individual’s civil rights or civil liberties on the basis of the individual’s membership in a certain group or class of people. Racial discrimination takes place when a person is denied a civil right due to his or her skin color or appearance. Various federal and state laws prohibit discrimination based on a person’s race or color.

Federal law prohibits race discrimination in contracts

The Civil Rights Act of 1866, which was passed shortly after the end of the Civil War, was enacted in order to provide legal remedies to recently freed slaves.

Section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 prohibits racial discrimination in making and enforcing contracts. For example, a manufacturer of automobile parts cannot refuse to enter into a sales contract with a prospective purchaser who appears to be of Middle Eastern heritage. Section 1981 protects an individual from racial discrimination not only in making and enforcing contracts, but also in participating in lawsuits and in giving evidence. For example, § 1981 has been applied to enforce contracts of employment, including contractual relationships of at-will employment. In 1991, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1991. In so doing, Congress amended § 1981 by adding § 1981(b) to cover claims of racially discriminatory termination.

Section 1981 does not apply to other forms of discrimination in making contracts. For instance, a person who believes that another person has refused to enforce a contract between the two upon learning of the first person’s religion cannot sue the other person under § 1981 for religious discrimination.

How does a person file a § 1981 claim?

An aggrieved party to a contract or a would-be contract that wishes to file a lawsuit under § 1981 is called the plaintiff. The other party is called the defendant. In order to have a valid claim under § 1981, a plaintiff usually must show that he or she belongs to a racial minority and that the defendant intentionally discriminated against the plaintiff due to the plaintiff’s race or color. Additionally, the plaintiff is required to prove that the purported discrimination involved one or more of the activities protected by § 1981. Specifically, the plaintiff must prove the making or enforcing of a contract, participation in a lawsuit, or the giving of evidence.

Some courts have not, however, required that the plaintiff actually be a member of a racial minority. The United States Supreme Court has ruled that § 1981 includes all persons, including white and nonwhite persons. Some courts have held that a white plaintiff could sue for “reverse” or “direct” discrimination under § 1981.

How long does a person have to file a § 1981 lawsuit?

The amount of time that a plaintiff or claimant has to bring a lawsuit is called the “statute of limitations.” The United States Supreme Court has ruled that lawsuits in which a plaintiff alleges a claim of racially discriminatory termination, pursuant to § 1981(b), must be filed within the federal four-year statute of limitations, rather than a shorter statute of limitations set forth in a state law.

Copyright 2011 LexisNexis, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc.


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