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Comcast Corp. v. Nat'l Ass'n of African American-Owned Media

Supreme Court of the United States

November 13, 2019, Argued; March 23, 2020, Decided

No. 18-1171.

Opinion

Justice Gorsuch delivered the opinion of the Court.

Few legal principles are better established than the rule requiring a plaintiff to establish causation. In the law of torts, this usually means a plaintiff must first plead and then prove that its injury would not have occurred “but for” the defendant’s unlawful conduct. The plaintiffs before us suggest that 42 U. S. C. §1981 departs from this traditional arrangement. But [**5]  looking to this particular statute’s text and history, we see no evidence of an exception.

This case began after negotiations between two media companies failed. African-American entrepreneur Byron Allen owns Entertainment Studios Network (ESN), the operator of seven television networks—Justice Central.TV, Comedy.TV, ES.TV, Pets.TV, Recipe.TV, MyDestination.TV, and Cars.TV. For years, ESN sought to have Comcast, one of the nation’s largest cable television conglomerates, carry its channels. But Comcast refused, citing lack of demand for ESN’s programming, bandwidth constraints,  [*361]  and its preference for news and sports programming that ESN didn’t offer.

With bargaining at an impasse, ESN sued. Seeking billions in damages, the company alleged that Comcast systematically disfavored “100% African American-owned media companies.” ESN didn’t dispute that, during negotiations, Comcast had offered legitimate business reasons for refusing to carry its channels. But, ESN contended, these reasons were merely pretextual. To help obscure its true discriminatory intentions and win favor with the Federal Communications Commission, ESN asserted, Comcast paid civil rights groups to advocate publicly on [**6]  its behalf. As relevant here, ESN alleged that Comcast’s behavior violated 42 U. S. C. §1981(a), which guarantees, among other things, “[a]ll persons . . . the same right . . . to make and enforce contracts . . . as is enjoyed by white citizens.”

Much motions practice followed. Comcast sought to dismiss ESN’s complaint, and eventually the district court agreed, holding that ESN’s pleading failed to state a claim as a matter of law. The district court twice allowed ESN a chance to remedy its complaint’s deficiencies by identifying additional facts to support its case. But each time, the court concluded, ESN’s efforts fell short of plausibly showing that, but for racial animus, Comcast would have contracted with ESN. After three rounds of pleadings, motions, and dismissals, the district court decided that further amendments would prove futile and entered a final judgment for Comcast.

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206 L. Ed. 2d 356 *; 2020 U.S. LEXIS 1908 **; 140 S. Ct. 1009; 28 Fla. L. Weekly Fed. S 77

COMCAST CORPORATION, Petitioner v. NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF AFRICAN AMERICAN-OWNED MEDIA, et al.

Notice: The LEXIS pagination of this document is subject to change pending release of the final published version.

Prior History:  [**1] ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE NINTH CIRCUIT

Nat'l Ass'n of African American-Owned Media v. Comcast Corp., 743 Fed. Appx. 106, 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 32686 (9th Cir. Cal., Nov. 19, 2018)

Disposition: 743 Fed. Appx. 106, vacated and remanded.

CORE TERMS

causation, but-for, motivating factor, contracts, civil rights, pleadings, cause of action, terms, same right, district court, contractual, enjoyed

Civil Rights Law, Contractual Relations & Housing, Equal Rights Under the Law (sec. 1981), Proof of Discrimination, Evidence, Burdens of Proof, Allocation, Torts, Elements, Causation, Causation in Fact, Civil Procedure, Pleadings, Complaints, Requirements for Complaint, Protection of Rights, Civil Rights Act of 1866, Equal Rights Under the Law (sec. 1981), Responses, Defenses, Demurrers & Objections, Motions to Dismiss, Governments, Legislation, Statutory Remedies & Rights, Effect & Operation, Amendments, Interpretation