NM Court of Appeals clarifies standards for reverse discrimination claims

In Garcia v. Hatch Valley Public Schools, the plaintiff, a female school bus driver of German descent (with a Hispanic surname by marriage), alleges her firing was the result of racial and national origin discrimination. She sued the defendant school district under New Mexico’s Human Rights Act, but lost in the trial court.

The Court of Appeals reversed in an opinion by Judge Zamora. First, the Court held that “national origin discrimination claims based on the ethnic distinction between Hispanics and non-Hispanics are actionable” under the Human Rights Act, rejecting the school district’s argument that because it was unaware of plaintiff’s German origin, it could not have engaged in national origin discrimination.

More interestingly, the Court addressed the standard for proving a reverse discrimination claim. Ordinarily, in discrimination cases, the plaintiff must prove that he or she is a member of a racial minority, but that obviously won’t work in cases of reverse discrimination, where the plaintiff is by defination a member of the racial majority.

Some federal courts of appeals hold that a reverse discrimination plaintiff must instead prove that “background circumstances” show that the defendant engaged in racial discrimination by a member of the majority. This standard is higher than that in ordinary discrimination cases, requiring the reverse discrimination plaintiff to demonstrate “intentional discrimination at the outset.”

The Court of Appeals rejected this test, and instead held that a reverse discrimination plaintiff need only show that he or she is a member of a “protected group,” which includes whites. The Court rejected the heightened test for reverse discrimination because it is unclear what “background circumstances” consist of, and because it treats reverse discrimination plaintiffs differently, which is contrary to the principle that all racial discrimination is abhorrent, whether directed at minorities or at members of the majority. Moreover, the “protected group” standard “is more workable in regions where it is becoming more common for a white person to be in the majority.

This result seems correct to me. Anti-discrimination laws exist to promote racial equality, so it makes little sense to treat some victims of racial discrimination less favorably than others.

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