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Fifth Circuit Recognizes Color Discrimination Claim Even in the Absence of Evidence of Race Discrimination

    Client Alerts
  • February 13, 2015

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination on the basis of race or color. In most situations, these two protected classifications are interchangeable, with discrimination on the basis of color considered race discrimination. However, as demonstrated last week by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, color discrimination claims can exist independent of convincing evidence of race discrimination.

In Etienne v. Spanish Lake Truck & Casino Plaza, LLC, the plaintiff was an African-American employee who claimed that she had been denied a promotion due to her race and color. The trial court dismissed the claims, noting that five of the casino’s six management openings had been filled by African-American employees. The plaintiff also alleged that her manager had justified the promotion denial by telling her that she was “too black.”

The Fifth Circuit used this alleged comment to revive the plaintiff’s suit, reversing the district court’s dismissal of her color discrimination claim. The court noted that color is a separate basis for discrimination under Title VII, and that color discrimination claims do not depend on convincing evidence of race discrimination. If lighter-skinned African-American employees had been treated more favorably than the plaintiff, she could recover under Title VII.

In some cases, color discrimination claims have succeeded where the alleged discriminating manager and victim were members of the same race. Employers’ equal employment opportunity training should include an explanation of color discrimination, and of the company’s prohibition against discrimination based on skin color.