diversity equity and inclusion (DEI)

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit held that a contest providing venture-capital funding only to Black female applicants is substantially likely to violate section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which prohibits race discrimination in the making of contracts.  The 2-1 split decision in American Alliance for Equal Rights v. Fearless Fund Management, LLC (No. 23-13138, June 3, 2024) held that an organization devoted to “ending racial classifications and racial preferences in America” was substantially likely to prevail on its § 1981 claim to enjoin the restricted contest, and it remanded the case for entry of a preliminary injunction.

A federal District Court in Ohio recently ruled that a white litigant did not have standing to assert a discrimination claim against a contest that had provided grants to Black-owned businesses.  The decision in Roberts v. Progressive Preferred Insurance Co. (N.D. Ohio May 21, 2024) held that the plaintiff lacked standing to seek retrospective relief under § 1981 of the Civil Rights Act because he had not alleged he would have received a grant had he been able to apply for one.  He also lacked standing to seek prospective relief because the defendants had dropped the race-based eligibility criteria from the following year’s grant program.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed an injunction against enforcement of portions of Florida’s “anti-woke” law, which prohibits employers from requiring employees to attend training sessions or other activities that “espouse” or “promote” eight “concepts” relating to race, color, sex, or national origin. The unanimous decision in Honeyfund.com, Inc. v. Governor, State of Florida (11th Cir. Mar. 4, 2024) held that the Florida statute draws “distinctions based on viewpoint – the most pernicious forms of dividing lines under the First Amendment” – and cannot be sustained as an “attempt to control speech by recharacterizing it as conduct.”

Well – this took four months. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ordered en banc rehearing of an unsuccessful challenge to the Securities and Exchange Commission’s approval of the Nasdaq Stock Market’s rules concerning diversity of directors on boards of Nasdaq-listed companies. The rules – which a panel of the Fifth Circuit upheld in October 2023 – require listed companies to disclose director-diversity information and either to have a certain number of diverse directors or to explain why not. We blogged about that decision here.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit denied review of the Securities and Exchange Commission’s approval of proposed rules promulgated by the Nasdaq Stock Market concerning the diversity of directors on Nasdaq-listed companies’ boards. The rules require listed companies to disclose director-diversity information and either to have a certain number of diverse directors or to explain why not. The decision in Alliance for Fair Board Recruitment v. SEC held that the rules do not violate the Constitution and that the SEC did not violate its statutory obligations in approving them.

The Nasdaq rules do not require board diversity; they require only disclosures and explanations. But the need to comply with the rules could have the practical effect of increasing diversity on boards of Nasdaq-listed companies.

A federal District Court in Washington recently dismissed a shareholder derivative action by a conservative advocacy group challenging Starbucks’ initiatives relating to diversity, equity, and inclusion (“DEI”). The decision in National Center for Public Policy Research v. Schultz held that the plaintiff did not fairly and adequately represent the interests of Starbucks and its shareholders in launching the challenge and had not pled particularized facts showing that Starbucks’ Board of Directors had wrongfully refused the plaintiff’s demand to dismantle the company’s DEI initiatives.

In an era of politicization of DEI and other ESG-related concerns, the ruling sends a signal that at least some courts will refuse to become “political attachés” in the culture wars and will not involve themselves with partisan attacks on “reasonable and legal decisions made by the board of directors of public corporations.” Decisions of this type should provide some comfort to corporations and boards as they consider how to address those complicated social and workplace issues.

A new study has found that diversity on corporate boards of directors leads to statistically significant increases in the representation of under-represented groups at the manager and staff level.  The study – “Do Diverse Directors Influence DEI Outcomes?” by Wei Cai (Columbia Graduate School of Business), Aiyesha Dey (Harvard Business School), Jillian Grennan (Santa Clara University and UC-Berkeley), Joseph Pacelli (Harvard Business School), and Lin Qiu (Purdue University) – adds to the growing literature on board diversity and human capital management, two significant ESG considerations for many corporations and investors.  While proponents of ESG sometimes focus on advancing each of those goals individually, the study links the two considerations and shows that one of them (board diversity) can promote at least some aspects of the other (diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workforce).