Alabama Must Face Race Claims Over Minimum Wage Law

The city of Birmingham won reinstatement of a race discrimination claim against the state of Alabama over imposition of a statewide minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, intended specifically to thwart the city’s passage of a minimum $10.10 per hour wage.

The Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Friday resurrected the city lawsuit saying city had made a plausible claim that the state 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 Constitution.

The majority-white Alabama legislature cannot usurp the authority of the majority-black city of Birmingham to thwart the city’s effort to raise local minimum wage to $10.10 per hour.

The plaintiffs, two of the city’s minimum wage workers and the NAACP, detailed factual claims that go to the heart of whether the law was enacted for a discriminatory purpose, wrote Judge Charles Wilson, for the panel.

That included “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,” Wilson said.

History of the Law

Birmingham, the largest city in Alabama, has 30 percent of its residents living in poverty, more than anywhere in the state. The city also has the largest black population in Alabama, 72 percent, and a black majority city council.

In 2015, the city urged the state to raise the minimum wage to $10 per hour statewide. When lawmakers failed to act, the city passed a stepped-up increase in the minimum wage to $8.50 per hour in 2016 and to $10.10 in 2017.

Within a week, a white state representative from the neighboring town of Mountain Brook, introduced a bill designed to quash the Birmingham law and create a statewide minimum wage. Mountain Brook has less than 2 percent black population and 3 percent of residents who live in poverty, the court pointed out.

The measure stalled, but in the 2016 session a new version by the same author gained 52 co-sponsors, all of whom were white. It quickly passed, despite no votes of support from black members of the House or Senate.  The law set $7.25 as the minimum hourly wage, gain state lawmakers completely control over regulation of collective bargaining, wage, leave and other employee benefits.

It immediately nullified the city law.

The plaintiffs “put forth extensive evidence suggesting that the Minimum Wage Act reflects Alabama’s longstanding history ‘of official actions taken for invidious purposes,’” Wilson wrote.

Trial Judge Criticized

Wilson had harsh words for the trial judge who dismissed the lawsuit, Judge David Proctor.

Wilson wrote that the “most perturbing” thing was the wrong legal standard used by Proctor to toss out the case. The “so-called ‘clearest proof’ standard applied by the judge was “recklessly plucked from an unrelated line of precedent.”  He said, “this requirement runs contrary to decades of established equal protection jurisprudence.”

“Clearest poof” says only the clearest proof will suffice to override legislative intent and is only used to transform civil remedy into a criminal penalty.

“Requiring the clearest proof of discriminatory purpose not only ignores the history of equal protection law but also tuns a blind eye to the realities of modern discrimination,” Wilson wrote.

“Today, racism is no longer pledged from the portico of the capitol or exclaimed from the floor of the constitutional convention; it hides, abashed, cloaked beneath ostensibly neutral laws and legitimate bases, steering government power toward no less invidious ends,” Wilson wrote.

He was joined by Judge Adalberto Jordan and visiting Judge Anne Conway of Florida.

Case: Lewis v. Gov. of Alabama, No. 17-11009


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