Another Bad ‘Disparate Impact’ Lawsuit

by Roger Clegg

The Ninth Circuit this month heard oral argument in a case challenging the NCAA’s policy of barring all convicted felons from coaching in NCAA-certified tournaments held for recruiting student-athletes to NCAA Division I schools. The policy is said to have a disparate impact on African Americans, and this is supposed to violate Title II of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which bans “discrimination or segregation on the ground of race, color, religion, or national origin” in “places of public accommodation.”

Sigh. Putting aside why the NCAA having this rule is “public accommodations” discrimination covered by Title II in the first place, it would be absurd to construe this statute to allow “disparate impact” causes of action. Consider a hotel resort, which clearly would be covered: Are its rates, location (are a city’s hotel-zoning decisions to be challengeable, too, by the way, if they have a “disparate impact”?), menus, music, dancing, décor, and on and on to be challengeable because in some way one or the other is less accommodating, statistically speaking, to this group or that group on the basis of race, color, ethnicity, and religion? The disparate-impact approach is exceptionally unwieldy even in the areas where it has already been applied, as I discuss here (noting, among other things, that the Supreme Court’s most recent pronouncement in this area, while disappointing, was at least unanimous in recognizing the dangers with the disparate-impact approach), and there is no reason to make matters worse.

It’s telling that even the Obama administration, which was always very aggressive in using the disparate-impact approach, decided to sit this case out. No federal regulation interpreting Title II as including disparate-impact discrimination is cited by plaintiffs. Fun fact: The district judge in this case, who ruled correctly that Title II does not allow disparate-impact lawsuits, was Gonzalo Curiel — the Obama appointee you may remember as the Latino jurist that President Trump complained about.

Finally, bear in mind that the disparate-impact approach requires race-based decision-making rather than prohibiting it. That is, it means that a decision-maker must be conscious of getting its racial, ethnic, and religion numbers right in order to avoid liability, rather than simply making decisions without regard to these things, which of course is what the civil-rights laws are supposed to be all about. Thus, the approach raises constitutional problems, as the late Justice Scalia noted. Accordingly, my organization joined an amicus brief filed by Pacific Legal Foundation, urging the court to adopt the principle of limiting the interpretation of civil-rights statutes to banning actual discrimination (disparate treatment) unless there is clear language in the statute to the contrary (which is conspicuously lacking here: A policy that is, as conceded in this case, neutral by its terms, in its intent, and in its application is not “discrimination or segregation [i.e., no “separate but equal” defense] on the ground of race” etc.).

Here’s hoping the Ninth Circuit agrees and puts paid to the notion that Title II can be used in this absurd way.

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