Federal Court Reinstates Suit Over Alabama's Racially Discriminatory Wage LawAugust 06, 2018

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a judge's decision to dismiss the lawsuit, which alleges that the majority-white Alabama Legislature racially discriminated against the city of Birmingham by blocking the majority-black city from setting a minimum wage within city limits.

In 2015, Birmingham became the first city in the South to increase the minimum hourly wage when it approved an ordinance to guarantee workers in the city $10.10 per hour.

Birmingham is Alabama's largest city. It has the most residents living in poverty (30 percent) of any municipality statewide, and also has the largest black population in Alabama (72 percent).

Declaring the need “to take legislative steps to help lift working families out of poverty, decrease income inequality, and boost [Birmingham's] economy," the city council unanimously approved the ordinance after its calls on the state legislature to raise the minimum wage statewide fell on deaf ears.

A week later, a white state representative from neighboring Mountain Brook (where only 1.5 percent of residents are black and just 3 percent live below the poverty line) introduced a bill in the Alabama House of Representatives to quash the ordinance and establish a uniform minimum wage throughout the state. That bill stalled, but at the beginning of the 2016 session, the same representative introduced a new version that had the support of 52 additional sponsors, all of whom were white. Within a week, the House approved the bill by a vote of 71 to 31. No black representatives voted in favor of it. Just 36 hours later, the bill was out of committee and headed to the Senate floor for a vote.

Meanwhile, the Birmingham City Council speeded up the implementation of its minimum wage law by adopting Ordinance No. 16-28, which raised the minimum wage effective immediately. Then-Mayor William Bell signed it into law on February 24, 2016. The next day, the Alabama Senate approved and Governor Robert Bentley signed the Minimum Wage Act, which nullified the Birmingham ordinance, preempted all local labor and employment regulation, and mandated a uniform minimum wage throughout the state of $7.25 per hour.

A few months later, fast food workers, civil rights groups, and the Legislative Black Caucus filed suit in federal court, arguing that the Minimum Wage Act purposely discriminates against Birmingham's black citizens by denying them economic opportunities on account of their race. A federal judge dismissed the complaint.

The Eleventh Circuit reversed on July 25 in a unanimous decision, finding the plaintiffs made a plausible showing that the Act had a discriminatory impact and was enacted with a discriminatory purpose.

First, the court found evidence that the Minimum Wage Act "bears more heavily on one race than another." The new law denied 37 percent of Birmingham's black wage workers a higher hourly wage, compared to only 27 percent of white wage workers, and black wage workers in Birmingham make $1.41 less per hour on average than white wage workers, and $2.12 less per hour statewide.

Second, the court observed that the "disproportionate effect of the Minimum Wage Act on Birmingham's poorest black residents; the rushed, reactionary, and racially polarized nature of the legislative process; and Alabama's historical use of state power to deny local black majorities authority over economic decision-making" plausibly imply that "discriminatory motivations were at play."

In evaluating whether laws that appear neutral "may nonetheless bear discriminatory purposes," the court made clear that it is important to consider evidence of Alabama's "deep and troubled history of racial discrimination," because that history shows the state has "consistently impeded the efforts of its black citizens to achieve social and economic equality." And while state officials in the past have been explicit about their racially discriminatory motives, no such "outright admission" of racial bias is required to show that a law passed today has a discriminatory purpose. "Today, racism is no longer pledged from the portico of the capitol or exclaimed from the floor of the constitutional convention," the court wrote. "[I]t hides, abashed, cloaked beneath ostensibly neutral laws and legitimate bases, steering government power toward no less invidious ends."

The court concluded that because the plaintiffs have "a plausible claim that the Minimum Wage Act had the purpose and effect of depriving Birmingham's black citizens equal economic opportunities on the basis of race, in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment," they are entitled now to prove that claim in court.