Alexander v. Sandoval,
532 U.S. 275 (2001)

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No. 99-1908. Argued January 16, 2001-Decided April 24, 2001

As a recipient of federal financial assistance, the Alabama Department of Public Safety (Department), of which petitioner Alexander is the director, is subject to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Section 601 of that title prohibits discrimination based on race, color, or national origin in covered programs and activities. Section 602 authorizes federal agencies to effectuate § 601 by issuing regulations, and the Department of Justice (DOJ) in an exercise of this authority promulgated a regulation forbidding funding recipients to utilize criteria or administrative methods having the effect of subjecting individuals to discrimination based on the prohibited grounds. Respondent Sandoval brought this class action to enjoin the Department's decision to administer state driver's license examinations only in English, arguing that it violated the DOJ regulation because it had the effect of subjecting non-English speakers to discrimination based on their national origin. Agreeing, the District Court enjoined the policy and ordered the Department to accommodate non-English speakers. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed. Both courts rejected petitioners' argument that Title VI did not provide respondents a cause of action to enforce the regulation.

Held: There is no private right of action to enforce disparate-impact regulations promulgated under Title VI. Pp. 279-293.

(a) Three aspects of Title VI must be taken as given. First, private individuals may sue to enforce § 601. See, e. g., Cannon v. University of Chicago, 441 U. S. 677, 694, 696, 699, 703, 710-711. Second, §601 prohibits only intentional discrimination. See, e. g., Alexander v. Choate, 469 U. S. 287,293. Third, it must be assumed for purposes of deciding this case that regulations promulgated under § 602 may validly proscribe activities that have a disparate impact on racial groups, even though such activities are permissible under § 601. Pp. 279-282.

(b) This Court has not, however, held that Title VI disparate-impact regulations may be enforced through a private right of action. Cannon was decided on the assumption that the respondent there had inten-



tionally discriminated against the petitioner, see 441 U. S., at 680. In Guardians Assn. v. Civil Servo Comm'n of New York City, 463 U. S. 582, the Court held that private individuals could not recover compensatory damages under Title VI except for intentional discrimination. Of the five Justices who also voted to uphold disparate-impact regulations, three expressly reserved the question of a direct private right of action to enforce them, id., at 645, n. 18. Pp. 282-284.

(c) Nor does it follow from the three points taken as given that Congress must have intended such a private right of action. There is no doubt that regulations applying § 601's ban on intentional discrimination are covered by the cause of action to enforce that section. But the disparate-impact regulations do not simply apply § 601-since they forbid conduct that § 601 permits-and thus the private right of action to enforce § 601 does not include a private right to enforce these regulations. See Central Bank of Denver, N A. V. First Interstate Bank of Denver, N A., 511 U. S. 164, 173. That right must come, if at all, from the independent force of § 602. Pp. 284-286.

(d) Like substantive federal law itself, private rights of action to enforce federal law must be created by Congress. Touche Ross & CO. V. Redington, 442 U. S. 560, 578. This Court will not revert to the understanding of private causes of action, represented by J. I. Case CO. V. Borak, 377 U. S. 426, 433, that held sway when Title VI was enacted. That understanding was abandoned in Cort V. Ash, 422 U. S. 66, 78. Nor does the Court agree with the Government's contention that cases interpreting statutes enacted prior to Cort V. Ash have given dispositive weight to the expectations that the enacting Congress had formed in light of the contemporary legal context. Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith, Inc. V. Curran, 456 U. S. 353, 378-379; Cannon, supra, at 698-699; and Thompson V. Thompson, 484 U. S. 174, distinguished. Pp. 286-288.

(e) The search for Congress's intent in this case begins and ends with Title VI's text and structure. The "rights-creating" language so critical to Cannon's § 601 analysis, 441 U. S., at 690, n. 13, is completely absent from § 602. Whereas § 601 decrees that "[n]o person ... shall ... be subjected to discrimination," § 602 limits federal agencies to "effectuat[ing]" rights created by § 601. And § 602 focuses neither on the individuals protected nor even on the funding recipients being regulated, but on the regulating agencies. Hence, there is far less reason to infer a private remedy in favor of individual persons, Cannon, supra, at 690-691. The methods § 602 expressly provides for enforcing its regulations, which place elaborate restrictions on agency enforcement, also suggest a congressional intent not to create a private remedy through


§ 602. See, e. g., Karahalios v. Federal Employees, 489 U. S. 527, 533. Pp.288-291.

(f) The Court rejects arguments that the regulations at issue contain rights-creating language and so must be privately enforceable; that amendments to Title VI in § 1003 of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1986 and § 6 of the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1987 "ratified" decisions finding an implied private right of action to enforce the regulations; and that the congressional intent to create a right of action must be inferred under Curran, supra, at 353, 381-382. Pp.291-293.

197 F.3d 484, reversed.

SCALIA, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C. J., and O'CONNOR, KENNEDY, and THOMAS, JJ., joined. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which SOUTER, GINSBURG, and BREYER, JJ., joined, post, p. 293.

Primary Holding

There is no private right of action for a disparate impact claim under a regulation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.


Since the Alabama Department of Public Safety made use of federal funds, it was subject to the anti-discrimination provisions in Title VI of the federal Civil Rights Act. The Act gave authority to federal agencies to create rules that would enforce its prohibitions against discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin. Using that authority, the U.S. Department of Justice created a rule that banned policies that had a discriminatory impact, even if they were not intended to discriminate.

The Department of Public Safety required all driver's license examinations to be administered in English. A Hispanic resident of Alabama, Sandoval, challenged this policy because he did not speak English and because he believed that he had the right to enforce the Department of Justice rule under the Civil Rights Act. The lower court found that Sandoval had standing and also that he prevailed on the merits of his claim. It issued an injunction to prevent the Department of Public Safety from enforcing the language policy.



  • Antonin Scalia (Author)
  • William Hubbs Rehnquist
  • Sandra Day O'Connor
  • Anthony M. Kennedy
  • Clarence Thomas

At the outset, Scalia ruled that the section of the Civil Rights Act pertaining to discriminatory policies by state agencies using federal funds applied only to intentional forms of discrimination. He acknowledged that individuals have a private right of action to enforce violations of this law. However, he pointed out that the rule crafted by the Department of Justice, although enacted as a means of enforcing the Civil Rights Act, was not limited to intentional discrimination.

The fact that there was a private right of action to enforce the substantive ban on intentional discriminatory policies by state agencies using federal funds did not mean that it could be implicitly transferred to enforcing the section of the Civil Rights Act that gave the Department of Justice the authority to enforce the ban. This latter section of the law did not contain an express private right of action, and there was no support in the legislative history, case precedents, or the contemporary legal context to find that such a right should be implied. Nor could support for a private right of action be rooted in the Department of Justice regulations themselves, or in any later amendments to the Civil Rights Act.


  • John Paul Stevens (Author)
  • David H. Souter
  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg
  • Stephen G. Breyer

Case Commentary

This decision illustrates the Supreme Court's reluctance to recognize a broad range of implied rights of action.

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