Circuit upholds $200k racial discrimination verdict under Section 1981

Here's an interesting racial discrimination case that produced a $200,000 jury verdict against a former police officer who hurled racial slurs at a black motorist and then initiated a fight with him, landing the plaintiff in a hospital. The Court of Appeals upholds the verdict under 42 U.S.C. sec. 1981.

The case is Wong v. Mangone, a summary order decided on December 6. The evidence showed that Mangone, a large white man, saw Wong, a black man, driving his car in Mangone's neighborhood. Mangone stuck his head in the window of Wong's car and made some vile racist comments about drug use and promiscuous sex by racial minorities. He basically told Wong to get the hell out of his neighborhood. Wong and Mangone then got into a fight. "The exchange quickly escalated to a physical fight involving a range of impromptu weapons, including the driver's side mirror of Wong's car, a circular saw, a metal pipe, a wooden broom handle, and a baton." Wong ended up face down on the ground. The facts were sharply disputed by the parties, but the jury awarded Wong $183,000 in compensatory damages and $17,000 in punitives.

The Court of Appeals (Cabranes, Livingston and Carney) upholds the verdict because there was enough evidence for the jury to find that Mangone violated Wong's right to be free from racial discrimination. What makes the case interesting is that Wong sued under Section 1981, which most of us associate with the right to be free from racial discrimination in contracts. Section 1981 is also used as an employment discrimination statute. But it also provides relief if you are denied the right "to the full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of persons and property as is enjoyed by white citizens." Private individuals can violate Section 1981, which is how Mangone got sued. As the Second Circuit notes, "a section 1981 violation may occur when a private individual injures 'the security of persons and property' in violation of a state law, and does so with a racially discriminatory purpose.'" Wong can invoke Section 1981 because Mangone violated state laws prohibiting assault and battery, "which are clearly intended for the 'security of persons."

This is a little-known protection under Section 1981. The only cases cited in the Second Circuit ruling in this case are district court cases from the Southern, Eastern and Western Districts of New York. Normally, when the Court of Appeals stakes out new ground, it will publishe an opinion rather than issue a summary order. The Second Circuit obviously agrees with this interpretation of Section 1981. Although this is an "unpublished" ruling, the Court is giving the go-ahead for federalizing certain torts claims if they involve race and assault or battery.