Supreme Court Sides With Comcast in Racism Lawsuit

The U.S. Supreme Court delivered a blow to media mogul Byron Allen on March 23, when it returned his racial bias lawsuit against cable giant Comcast back to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The $20 billion lawsuit accused Comcast of discriminating against Black-owned channels.

Allen, who owns The Weather Channel and a number of other channels under Entertainment Studios Networks (ESN), claimed in his 2015 lawsuit that Comcast refused to carry his channels due to racial discrimination. The lawsuit made claims under the post-Civil War law called the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which prohibits racial discrimination in business contracts.

The media mogul has a similar $10 billion suit against Charter Communications.

The Supreme Court announced in September 2019 that it would hear arguments in the lawsuit. Nine justices unanimously decided to send the case back to the 9th Circuit to reconsider Allen’s claims, Reuters reported. The justices ruled that the appeals court used the wrong test to assess Allen’s suit.

“To prevail, a plaintiff must initially plead and ultimately prove that, but for race, it would not have suffered,” wrote conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch.

Comcast previously said that its decision to not carry Allen’s channels is unrelated to the fact that he is Black. The channels, which focus on comedy, cars, food and pets, are carried by Verizon FIOS and the now-merged AT&T and DirecTV.

“This is a very bad day for our country,” the media mogul told Yahoo Finance in a statement. “Unfortunately, the Supreme Court has rendered a ruling that is harmful to the civil rights of millions of Americans.”

Allen added that he planned to continue fighting for a solution but through federal legislation.

“We will continue our fight by going to Congress and the presidential candidates to revise the statue to overcome this decision by the United States Supreme Court, which significantly diminishes our civil rights,” he said in a statement. Allen did not respond to a request for comment.

“We are pleased the Supreme Court unanimously restored certainty on the standard to bring and prove civil rights claims. The well-established framework that has protected civil rights for decades continues,” Comcast said in a statement to The North Star.

The statement continued, “We now hope that on remand the 9th Circuit will agree that the District Court properly applied the law in dismissing Mr. Allen’s case three separate times for failing to state any claim.”

Comcast previously told TNS that it “proudly” distributes several independent networks that are majority-owned by Black entrepreneurs and investors. In its email to TNS, Comcast said it also distributes networks led by Black executives for Black audiences, but are owned or co-owned by larger media companies, including OWN, BET and Bounce TV.

Case Timeline

  • Allen’s Entertainment Studios filed a lawsuit against Comcast in 2015 claiming the cable company violated the Civil Rights Act of 1866.

  • The lawsuit was dismissed by a trial court three times before it appeared before an appeals court, according to The Associated Press.

  • The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, based in San Francisco, allowed the case to go forward, prompting Comcast to ask the Supreme Court to weigh in.

  • The Supreme Court heard arguments on the $20 billion lawsuit on November 13, 2019.

  • On March 23, the Supreme Court unanimously voted to send the case back to the 9th Circuit Court. The decision will also affect Allen’s $10 billion case against Charter Communications.

What Happens Next?

The Supreme Court’s decision is definitely a blow to Allen’s case but does not necessarily mean Comcast will win the case. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a liberal, wrote that when the 9th Circuit reassesses the case, “if race indeed accounts for Comcast’s conduct, Comcast should not escape liability for injuries inflicted during the contract-formation process.”

In its statement to TNS, Comcast maintained that it was proud of its record on diversity and that the high court’s decision does not change the law. Comcast also claimed that discrimination cases will not be harder to win than they were previously. The company noted that less than 10 percent of Section 1981 cases have been dismissed at the pleading state in the way in which the Allen case was dismissed.

However, Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, told Reuters that the case could affect discrimination cases in the future.

“No doubt, this ruling may shut the courthouse door on some discrimination victims who, at the complaint stage, may simply be without the full range of evidence needed to meet the court’s tougher standard,” Clarke said.

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About the Author

Nicole Rojas is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has published in various venues, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored Europe, Asia, Australia and the Americas.