As a state or local government official, or as the contractor for a state or local government, you must know, and comply with, applicable federal civil rights laws. Notably, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VI) applies to the delivery of all federally-assisted programs and activities, and it prohibits discrimination on the bases of race, color, and national origin.

Where a state or local government receives federal financial assistance either directly or indirectly for the purpose of operating a program or activity for the benefit of its public, then the nondiscrimination mandates of Title VI will apply to all aspects of the operation of the program or activity. Some examples of federally-assisted programs and activities in a locality include public housing, American Job Network centers providing job training, apprenticeship opportunities, and other workforce development programs and activities, public educational institutions including colleges and universities accepting students using federal financial aid, Medicare and Medicaid programs, environmental protection programs, emergency preparedness programs, and many others. The concept underlying Title VI is that no person shall be excluded from participating in, or benefitting from, the federally-assisted services, aid, training, or benefits on the bases of race, color, or national origin.

Often, a state or local government will contract with a private company to help them deliver a federally-assisted program or activity. An example of this is presented in the case of Carnell Construction Corp. v. Danville Redevelopment and Housing Authority, ___ F.3d ___, Case Nos. 13-1143, 13-1129, and 13-1239 (4th Cir. Mar. 6, 2014). Here, a public housing authority entered into a contract with Carnell Construction to clear a construction site for building public housing. The contractor also was responsible for grading the land, and installing drainage and erosion controls. As this case illustrates, not only must a state or local government agency offer public housing to members of its public in compliance with Title VI, but it also must ensure that the contracting and procurement practices related to development of this housing comply with Title VI.

In Carnell Construction, a Title VI race-based disparate treatment lawsuit was filed by a minority-owned business against the Danville Redevelopment and Housing Authority (Housing Authority). The court held the minority-owned corporation “can acquire a racial identity and establish standing to seek a remedy for alleged race discrimination under Title VI.” Thus, the corporation was entitled to file a lawsuit against the Housing Authority alleging race-based discrimination and retaliation under Title VI with regard to the Housing Authority’s contracting and procurement practices.

Under the facts of the case, the minority-owned business alleged the Program Director and the Contracting Officer of the Housing Authority made racially-discriminatory statements, and the Housing Authority engaged in “disparate treatment with respect to contracting practices such as ‘prepayment’ for materials, ‘retainage’ of process payments, and approval of change order requests.” The court stated:

We hold that a corporation that is minority-owned and has been properly certified as such under applicable law can be the direct object of discriminatory action and establish standing to bring an action based on such discrimination. Accordingly, we agree with the conclusions reached by our sister circuits that prudential considerations should not bar review of a claim of race discrimination suffered by such a corporation during its participation in a program that has received federal funding assistance.

Slip op. at p. 6.

Here, the president and sole shareholder of Carnell Construction was African-American, and he “publicly represented that (his business) was eligible for consideration as a minority business enterprise when it contracted with the Housing Authority on a public project receiving federal funding assistance.” Because the corporation alleged the Housing Authority “discriminated against (it) during its performance on the (public housing) contract based on the minority status of the owner, and that (the corporation) suffered direct injury as a result of that racial discrimination,” the court determined Carnell Construction had standing to sue under Title VI.

The court concluded that the minority-owned business had standing to sue even though it was not the intended beneficiary of the public housing funding (i.e. seeking to reside in public housing). Citing to 40 U.S.C. § 2000d, the court explained that Title VI requires no person “shall be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance” on the basis of race. While Title VI applies to the intended beneficiaries of the program or activity (i.e. the Housing Authority cannot discriminate against applicants for public housing on the bases of race, color, or national origin), the court made clear that Title VI also applies to the contracting and procurement process related to the public housing program; that is, it was illegal for the Housing Authority to discriminate against Carnell Construction on the basis of race because the corporation was participating, or seeking to participate, as a contractor for the Housing Authority in the delivery of its public housing program.

√ Lessons learned

Although this case involved a federally-assisted public housing program, its holding applies to the delivery of any federally-assisted program or activity for the benefit of the public including, but not limited to, programs related to employment or workforce development, transportation, education, environmental protection, emergency preparedness, and health and human services among many others. Often, state and local government agencies, or instrumentalities of these agencies, such as the Housing Authority involved in Carnell Construction, will utilize the services of independent contractors to assist in the delivery of federally-assisted programs (i.e. in this case, the Housing Authority contracted with the minority-owned business to prepare a site for public housing construction).

From the point of soliciting bids or proposals to selecting a contractor to overseeing the contractor’s performance of work related to the delivery of a federally-assisted program or activity, the nondiscrimination mandates of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 apply. This means the state or local government agency, or an instrumentality of the agency, cannot treat one contractor differently from another contractor in this process (solicitation, selection, payment, performance oversight) based on race, color, or national origin.
Examples of disparate treatment include requiring more or different documentation from one contractor as compared to another contractor. One example here is a contracting officer that requires a Hispanic-owned contractor provide documentation proving eligibility to work, but non-Hispanic-owned contractors are not required to provide such documentation. This is a form of national origin-based discrimination.

Another example of disparate treatment is delayed or different payment for contract performance. For example, the contracting officer denies prepayment of certain funds to cover the costs of job site materials for a black-owned contractor, whereas non-black-owned contractors do receive prepayment of certain funds to cover the costs of job site materials. This is a form of race and/or color-based discrimination.

Another important facet of the Carnell Construction case is the court’s conclusion that a minority-owned corporation with an established racial identity may sue a state or local government agency, or an instrumentality of the agency like the Housing Authority, for damages under Title VI. So, the nondiscrimination requirements of Title VI apply not only to members of the public who may ultimately benefit from the federally-assisted program or activity, but also to a corporation with an established identity that is protected by the statute (i.e. race, color, and/or national origin) where the corporation seeks to participate in the federally-assisted program.

Therefore, all contracting and procurement functions of a state or local government agency, or its instrumentality, must be performed in compliance with applicable federal civil rights laws. In Carnell Construction, Title VI was implicated. But, keep in mind, other federal civil rights laws may apply to a program or activity, such as Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (prohibiting disability-based discrimination), or the Age Discrimination Act (prohibiting age-based discrimination), and it would be illegal to discriminate against contractors as well as beneficiaries seeking to participate in a program on these bases as well.

An example where additional federal civil rights laws would apply is in the area of workforce development. For purposes here, let’s assume a state or local workforce development agency (such as an American Job Network center) contracts with a language line provider to provide translation assistance for its limited English proficient customers. The agency’s process and practices for soliciting, selecting, and overseeing the language line provider/contractor must comply with the nondiscrimination requirements of Section 188 of the Workforce Investment Act (WIA), which, in addition to prohibiting discrimination on the bases of race, color, national origin, disability, and age, also requires nondiscrimination on the bases of gender, political affiliation, and religion. Moreover, the contractor, while engaged in providing translation assistance for the workforce development agency, also must comply with WIA Section 188 as it interacts with members of the public.

So, if the workforce development agency requested additional insurance coverage from a woman-owned language line provider as opposed to non-woman-owned providers, then it has engaged in prohibited gender-based discrimination in the contracting process in violation of WIA Section 188.

Turning to performance of the contract, if the workforce development agency’s language line provider/contractor refuses to provide Arabic translation services to members of the public seeking to participate one of the agency’s workforce development programs on grounds that Arabic-speaking persons are Muslim, then the provider/contractor has engaged in religious-based discrimination in violation of WIA Section 188.

At the end of the day, your contracting process along with your delivery of federally-assisted programs and activities to your public must comply with applicable federal civil rights laws.

√ About Seena Foster

Seena Foster, award-winning civil rights author and Principal of the discrimination consulting firm, Title VI Consulting, LLP in Alexandria, Virginia, provides expertise and guidance in the areas of civil rights compliance and discrimination complaint investigations related to the delivery of federally-assisted programs and activities. Her customers include state and local governments, colleges and universities, private companies, private counsel, and non-profit organizations. You may contact her at, or visit her web site at for additional information regarding the services and resources she offers.

By way of background in this area, in 2003, Ms. Foster served as a Senior Policy Analyst to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Civil Rights Center (CRC). In that capacity, she led a team of equal opportunity specialists to conduct disability-based technical assistance reviews of One-Stop centers, and she assisted the CRC’s leadership in preparing for limited English proficiency-based compliance reviews. Ms. Foster also analyzed and weighed witness statements and documents to prepare numerous final determinations for signature by the CRC Director, which resolved discrimination complaints under a variety of federal civil rights laws such as Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, the Age Discrimination Act, the Rehabilitation Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and Section 188 of the Workforce Investment Act. In 2006, Ms. Foster received the Secretary of Labor’s Equal Employment Opportunity Award in recognition of “exceptional efforts to ensure that individuals with disabilities have full access to employment and related services and benefits at the Nation’s One-Stop Career Centers.” And, at the request of the CRC, Ms. Foster served as a popular workshop speaker at national equal opportunity forums co-sponsored by the CRC and the National Association of State Workforce Agencies. Her presentations covered topics such as the WIA Section 188 disability checklist, conducting discrimination complaint investigations and writing final determinations, and conducting investigations of allegations involving harassment and hostile environment.

With a passion for ensuring nondiscrimination and equal opportunity in the delivery of federally-assisted programs and activities, Ms. Foster remains highly active in the field through her series of on-demand webcasts for equal opportunity professionals as well as through her mediation services, training, and assistance developing policies and procedures designed to ensure compliance with applicable federal civil rights laws. Her training in the areas of compliance and complaint investigations has been described as “dynamic,” “hitting the nail on the head,” “well-organized,” and “informative.” And, her award-winning book on conducting discrimination complaint investigations is viewed as “eye-opening” and “the best on the market.” In 2007, Ms. Foster was certified as a mediator by the Virginia Supreme Court, and later obtained “Federal Workplace Mediation” certification through the Northern Virginia Mediation Service.

In her local community, she volunteers at Carpenter’s Shelter in Alexandria, Virginia, and serves on its Development Committee and Major Donors and Partners Subcommittee. In addition, Ms. Foster serves on the Economic Opportunities Commission for Alexandria, Virginia, which addresses availability of housing and jobs for economically-disadvantaged persons. In 2013, Ms. Foster received the City of Alexandria’s “Joan White Grass Roots Service Award” for her commitment of time and effort “working to improve the lives of the homeless as well as advocating their needs and the mission of Carpenter’s Shelter in the community.” She is a member of the Discrimination Law and Human Rights Law Committees of the International Bar Association. And, in November 2011, Ms. Foster was selected as a lifetime member of the Cambridge Who’s Who among Executives, Professionals, and Entrepreneurs based on her “accomplishments, talents, and knowledge in the area of civil rights.”
Ms. Foster received her undergraduate degree from Michigan State University, and she has a Juris Doctorate from The George Washington University Law School.