Law School Case Brief
Denny v. Elizabeth Arden Salons, Inc. - 456 F.3d 427 (4th Cir. 2006)
42 U.S.C.S. § 1981 establishes that all persons have the same right to make and enforce contracts as is enjoyed by white citizens. 42 U.S.C.S. § 1981(a). It defines "make and enforce contracts" to include the making, performance, modification, and termination of contracts, and the enjoyment of all benefits, privileges, terms, and conditions of the contractual relationship. 42 U.S.C.S. § 1981(b). To prove a § 1981 claim, therefore, a plaintiff must ultimately establish both that the defendant intended to discriminate on the basis of race, and that the discrimination interfered with a contractual interest.
A woman bought her mother a gift package from a beauty salon and day spa. Upon visiting the salon to check on her mother and to add a hair coloring to the package, a receptionist told the woman that there was "a problem" because the salon did not "do black people's hair." Plaintiffs mother and daughter, who were African American, brought this suit against the salon under Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000a et seq. (2000), which prohibits racial discrimination in a "place of public accommodation," and under 42 U.S.C. § 1981, which disallows such discrimination in the making and enforcing of contracts. Plaintiffs also asserted a state law claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress. The district court granted summary judgment to the salon on all claims. Plaintiffs sought review.
Did the federal district court err in dismissing plaintiff customers' lawsuit under 42 U.S.C.S. § 1981, which disallows such discrimination in the making and enforcing of contracts?
The United States Court of Appeals first found that the district court properly dismissed plaintiffs' Title II claim, because the salon was not a "place of public accommodation," as that term was defined in the statute. Regarding the § 1981 claim, the Court found that plaintiffs had presented not only strong but direct evidence of the salon's intent to discriminate. Indeed, plaintiffs presented evidence that suggested the salon refused to perform on a contract -- either denying plaintiffs a hair styling, hair coloring, or both -- for an explicit race-based reason. Because plaintiffs provided sufficient evidence that defendant salon discriminated against them on the basis of race in its performance of contractual obligations, their § 1981 claim must survive summary judgment.
Finally, the Court found that plaintiffs failed to present evidence that they suffered sufficiently severe distress. The Court reasoned that plaintiffs made no claim that they had any objective physical injury caused by the stress or that they sought medical attention. The tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress is not favored under Virginia law, and liability only arises if a defendant's conduct resulted in severe emotional distress that no reasonable person could be expected to endure.
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