Law & Courts

Civil Rights Ruling Could Affect Education Bias Cases

By Mark Walsh — May 02, 2001 5 min read
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The U.S. Supreme Court last week substantially curtailed a key federal civil rights law, ruling that there is no private right to sue over so-called disparate-impact discrimination in programs receiving federal money.

The 5-4 decision could have a significant effect in education because civil rights plaintiffs have been suing for years over alleged discriminatory effects in a variety of educational programs, such as testing and school finance.

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 bars intentional discrimination based on race, color, or national origin in federally financed programs. But regulations adopted by many federal agencies, including the Department of Education, extend the law’s prohibition to action that merely has a discriminatory impact on protected groups.

Lower federal courts have long assumed there was a private right to sue under the disparate-impact regulations adopted by agencies under the Civil Rights Act.

But now the Supreme Court has said that the Title VI regulations cannot be enforced through private lawsuits because Congress never explicitly authorized such suits when it passed or amended the Civil Rights Act.

“It is most certainly incorrect to say that language in a regulation can conjure up a private cause of action that has not been authorized by Congress,” Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the majority in Alexander v. Sandoval (Case No. 99-1908). “Agencies may play the sorcerer’s apprentice but not the sorcerer himself.”

He was joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Anthony M. Kennedy, and Clarence Thomas.

Justice John Paul Stevens, in a dissent joined by Justices David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen G. Breyer, noted that “every Court of Appeals to address the question had concluded that a private right of action exists” to enforce Title VI regulations against nonintentional discrimination. “And Congress had adopted several statutes that appear to ratify the status quo,” Justice Stevens wrote.

Education Cases

The case was a challenge by a Mexican immigrant, Martha Sandoval, to Alabama’s policy of requiring that its driver’s test be administered only in English. Neither opinion had much to say about the underlying issue of “official English” policies because the Supreme Court appeal was focused on the question of private lawsuits under Title VI.

Legal experts said the impact of the court’s ruling would be felt well beyond the Alabama Department of Motor Vehicles.

“This opinion eviscerates the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” argued Thomas K. Gilhool, a lawyer with the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia. The private legal organization is helping represent the Philadelphia school district and a class of low-income families in a novel federal lawsuit challenging Pennsylvania’s school funding system.

The lawsuit cited the federal Department of Education’s Title VI rules against disparate- impact bias as the basis for a claim that the state illegally discriminates against districts with large numbers of minority students.

After a federal district judge dismissed the suit, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, in Philadelphia, reinstated it in 1999 and ruled there was a private right to sue over the alleged disparate-impact discrimination.

Several other prominent lawsuits in education have relied in part on a Title VI disparate-impact claim, including:

  • A school finance lawsuit pitting New York City minority families against the state. Although that lawsuit is in state court, a state judge in January allowed the lawsuit to proceed based in part on a Title VI disparate-impact claim.
  • A lawsuit challenging the Texas high school graduation test was allowed to proceed in federal district court in San Antonio last year on the theory that the test had a discriminatory effect on minority students.
  • A federal lawsuit challenging the University of California’s use of the SAT in college admissions is based on Title VI disparate-impact bias, among other claims.

Mr. Gilhool said the Philadelphia case was not doomed by the Supreme Court’s ruling because the case also makes claims of intentional discrimination under the 1964 Civil Rights Act and an older federal civil rights law.

But he and other civil rights activists acknowledge that it is much more difficult to prove there is intentional discrimination in a program receiving federal money. Furthermore, while there is no longer a private right to sue over discriminatory effects, federal agencies can still use their enforcement powers against that type of bias by withholding federal aid, for example. But federal agencies have limited resources, and private lawsuits have traditionally been viewed as a way to extend the protections of a civil rights law.

John H. Findley, a lawyer with the Pacific Legal Foundation in Sacramento, Calif., hailed the court’s ruling, saying that Congress never intended to allow lawsuits over discriminatory effects.

Sexual Harassment

Separately last week, the justices unanimously threw out a sexual-harassment suit filed by an administrator against the Clark County, Nev., school district.

Shirley A. Breeden, a human resources administrator in the 231,000-student district, which includes Las Vegas, alleged that she had suffered retaliation for complaining about a brief incident with co-workers that she considered to be sexual harassment. At a 1994 meeting, two male co- workers laughed about a job applicant’s comment to a another worker that “making love to you is like making love to the Grand Canyon.” The statement was disclosed in a psychological report.

Ms. Breeden alleged the district moved her from the central office to a remote location and changed some of her job duties in retaliation for her complaints.

In an unsigned opinion in Clark County School District v. Breeden (No. 00-866), the court ruled her allegations did not amount to a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which covers job discrimination.

The single incident “cannot remotely be considered extremely serious, as our cases require,” the court’s opinion said.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 02, 2001 edition of Education Week as Civil Rights Ruling Could Affect Education Bias Cases

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