An Eleventh Circuit appeals court heard arguments Wednesday as to whether or not companies can sue for racial discrimination.
Sheba Ethiopian Restaurant, formerly located in DeKalb County, Georgia, filed a lawsuit in 2017 alleging that officials conspired to have the ethnic restaurant shut down, violating the constitutional right to equal protection of the law.
“Sheba, an Ethiopian restaurant that offered hookah service and catered to [African clientele], was ticketed repeatedly by county officials for petty code infractions such as minor repair without a building permit. Meanwhile, restaurants in the same district which catered to predominantly white clientele, and which violated the same code provisions, have been knowingly permitted to operate unencumbered,” Sheba’s attorney Cary Wiggins argued in his appellate brief.
Mr. Wiggins also argued that Sheba’s owners, even though they are a group, have just as much validity suing over racial discrimination as an individual filing such a suit would have.
“You cannot target someone for adverse treatment based solely on their race. This is true even if the minority owners of a business choose to operate in a closely-held corporation, as opposed to a sole proprietorship,” Mr. Wiggins charges.
DeKalb officials assert in their appellate brief existing Supreme Court precedent, mainly the one set in Village of Arlington Heights v. Metropolitan Housing Development Corp., which they claim established that corporations do not have a racial identity and thusly cannot sue on grounds of racial discrimination.
County authorities also point out that Sheba plead guilty to most of the citations in a state magistrate court, and then litigated them in a state superior court; they would be precluded from relitigating matters already settled in those courts.
“Unable to contest the objective merits of the Appellants’ actions, this case focuses solely on the Appellants’ alleged motivation for taking them. Specifically, Sheba alleges that the County initiated the inspections based on discriminatory animus toward Sheba’s Ethiopian ethnicity,” the county brief reads.
DeKalb County also charges that its conduct was “objectively valid,” referring to both the safety violations at Sheba and Sheba’s acceptance of culpability for those charges.
“Sheba renovated its restaurant and began operating a nightclub without obtaining the proper permits. Inspectors also found Sheba serving alcohol after hours, exceeding the maximum occupancy limit by hundreds of people time and again, using fireworks inside, blocking rear exits, etc., and Sheba pleaded guilty to most of those charges,” the county brief says.
During Wednesday’s hearing, judges noted that the precedent on whether corporations can have a legal racial identity is not fully set; other circuit courts have allowed companies to sue on discrimination grounds thanks to stipulations in the Civil Rights Act.
Judge Robert Luck pondered whether or not a company’s theoretical racial identity would change if it changed hands between owners of one ethnicity and another. Mr. Wiggins did not answer the question.
“Isn’t that a problem that we can’t identify that? If it can change, then how can we say it’s like an individual that has an immutable race? AT&T can’t possibly have a race because there’s millions of shareholders,” Judge Luck said, according to Courthouse News.
The three-judge panel on the appeals court has not announced when they will rule in the case.