The generally conservative Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals recently issued a ruling effectively granting class action status to a racial discrimination lawsuit originating out of South Carolina. The case involves alleged racial discrimination at a Nucor Steel plant. The Plaintiffs in the case claim, among other things, that African Americans were improperly denied promotions. They further allege that far more blatant incidents of racism took place at the plant as well. For example, the Plaintiffs contend that paraphernalia exhibiting the Confederate flag was available at the plant gift shop and that certain Caucasian employees openly used racial epithets while on the job.
Class status means that not only the named plaintiffs can be a party to a suit and that the interests of many, many affected people can be represented all at once. In this case, class status had been denied at the lower court level and was appealed to the Fourth Circuit. There, it was ultimately determined that the District Court Judge abused his discretion in refusing to certify the class.
The decision in Brown v. Nucor was just published on August 7, 2009 and can be found at Brown v. Nucor Corp., 2009 U.S. App. LEXIS 17643. For a number of reasons, the opinion may be significant. For starters, the case gives a clear roadmap on when and how a race class can win certification in the Fourth Circuit. Secondly, the opinion may signal a shift in how the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals will treat similar cases going forward.
It is important to recognize that while this opinion marks a clear and decisive victory for the Plaintiffs, it says little about the merits of the case itself. The Court did not pass judgment on any facts or liability; it merely allowed the case to proceed as a class action. In laymen’s terms, the Plaintiffs won a big battle, but they have not yet won the war. It remains to be seen what happens next. Nevertheless, the precedential value of the Court’s opinion is undeniable as it will almost certainly play a prominent role in future discrimination actions where class status is sought.