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Wilson v. DNC Services Corp.

United States District Court, District of Columbia

September 27, 2019

WILLIE LEE WILSON et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
DNC SERVICES CORPORATION, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          TREVOR N. McFADDEN, U.S.D.J.

         Willie Lee Wilson ran in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary. Dr. Wilson and his campaign (collectively, “Plaintiffs”) claim that the DNC Services Corporation (“DNC”) discriminated against him and thwarted his campaign efforts. In an earlier opinion, the Court dismissed most of the Plaintiffs’ claims. Their remaining claims arise under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981 and 1985, and the DNC has moved for summary judgment. For the reasons below, the Court will grant that motion.

         I.

         Dr. Wilson is an “African-American entrepreneur, philanthropist, and religious motivational speaker” from Chicago. Pls.’ Second Am. Compl. (“Compl.”) at 1, ECF No. 25.[1] Dr. Wilson sought the Democratic nomination during the 2016 Presidential election, registering his campaign committee, “Willie Wilson 2016, ” with the Federal Election Commission (“FEC”). Id. His counsel notified the DNC about his campaign in May 2015. Def.’s Reply Statement of Undisputed Material Facts (“Def.’s Statement”) at 14, ECF No. 60-1.[2] In July, his counsel contacted the DNC a second time, asking for confirmation that the DNC “recognized” Dr. Wilson and seeking information about the nomination process, the DNC debate schedule, and any other resources the DNC could offer. Id. In response, the DNC introduced Dr. Wilson’s counsel to its Party Affairs Director, who sent him several documents about the nomination and delegate-selection processes. Id. at 16. It also stated that Dr. Wilson’s campaign would need to meet certain threshold requirements to participate in either the Democratic primary debates or in a meeting the DNC would hold that August. Id. Finally, the DNC offered to answer any more questions and introduced Dr. Wilson’s counsel to its National Political Director as a contact for state-specific questions and introductions to state Party leadership. Id.

         In their Complaint, the Plaintiffs allege that the DNC, “acting through its officers, agents, employees, and other independent contractors and representatives . . . collaborated, conspired, and agreed amongst themselves to hamper, impede and sabotage [the Wilson] campaign.” Compl. at 18. They seek $2 million in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages under four theories of recovery: breach of contract, promissory estoppel, race discrimination in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981, and conspiracy to violate civil rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1985. See Id . at 14–20. The DNC moved to dismiss their Complaint. See Mot. to Dismiss, ECF No. 26. The Court granted in part and denied in part that motion. See Wilson v. DNC Servs. Corp. (“Wilson I”), 315 F.Supp.3d 392, 395 (D.D.C. 2018).

         Now only two of the Plaintiffs’ claims remain. First, they claim that the DNC violated 42 U.S.C. § 1981 by not contracting with Dr. Wilson’s campaign-because of his race-to give it access to DNC’s national voter file (“Voter File”). See Compl. at 12–14. Next, they claim that the DNC conspired to bar Dr. Wilson from speaking at a campaign event in South Carolina. See Id . at 18–19. The parties have completed discovery, and the DNC now seeks summary judgment on the remaining claims. See Mot. for Summ. J. (“Def.’s Br.”), ECF No. 52.[3]

         II.

         To prevail on a motion for summary judgment, one must show that “there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); see also Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247 (1986); Celotex Corp v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). A factual dispute is material if it could alter the outcome of the suit under the substantive governing law, and a dispute about a material fact is genuine “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248.

         “[A] party seeking summary judgment always bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of the [record] which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323. Once this showing has occurred, the non-moving party bears the burden of setting forth “specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 250.

         “A party asserting that a fact cannot be or is genuinely disputed must support the assertion” by “citing to particular parts of materials in the record” or “showing that the materials cited do not establish the absence or presence of a genuine dispute, or that an adverse party cannot produce admissible evidence to support the fact.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1).

         At summary judgment, “[t]he evidence of the nonmovant is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255. The nonmoving party’s opposition, however, must consist of more than mere unsupported allegations or denials and must be supported by affidavits, declarations, or other competent evidence, setting forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e).

         III.

         A.

         The Plaintiffs claim that the DNC violated 42 U.S.C. § 1981 by not contracting with Dr. Wilson’s campaign-because of his race-to give it access to DNC’s Voter File. See Compl. at 12–14. The Voter File is a complex digital database that combines millions of pieces of information about registered voters. Def.’s Statement at 22. It includes valuable information that is political sensitive and not commercially available. Id. at 23. As the Plaintiffs admit, the DNC did not offer every presidential candidate who registered with the FEC the opportunity to use its Voter File. Id. at 25. Indeed, the DNC entered into licensing agreements with only two 2016 presidential campaigns: Hillary For America and Bernie 2016. Id. at 28.

         The Voter File is central to DNC’s ability to coordinate strategy for candidates throughout the country for local, state, and national office. Id. at 22. To use the Voter File, organizations and campaigns must go through specialized training and hire informational technology staff to set up, maintain, and update the database. Id. at 23. In fact, Voter File’s users can edit and change information that all users share. Id.

         The parties agree that the DNC did not offer its Voter File to Dr. Wilson and his campaign. See Pls.’ Mem. in Opp. (“Pls.’ Br.”) at 10, ECF No. 59; Def.’s Reply at 10 n.5, ECF No. 60. In July 2015, Dr. Wilson’s lawyer emailed the DNC, asking: “Would you be able to confirm that Dr. Wilson has been recognized by the DNC, and also share information regarding the 50 state nomination process and debate schedule. Please also let me know if there are any other resources the DNC can offer to candidates.” Def’s Statement at 14. While this email asked the DNC to identify “any other resources the DNC can offer to candidates, ” it did not explicitly mention the Voter File. Id. Even so, the Plaintiffs claim that the DNC violated Section 1981 because the DNC did not provide them an opportunity to enter into a licensing agreement for its Voter File. Pls.’ Br. at 10.

         Section 1981 “protects the equal right of all persons within the jurisdiction of the United States to make and enforce contracts, ” including contracts for employment, “without respect for race.” Domino’s Pizza, Inc. v. McDonald, 546 U.S. 470, 474–75 (2006) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 1981(a) (cleaned up)). To state a claim for racial discrimination under Section 1981, the plaintiff must allege that (1) the plaintiff is a member of a racial minority; (2) the defendant intended to discriminate against the plaintiff on the basis of race; and (3) the discrimination concerned an activity enumerated in § 1981. Mitchell v. DCX, Inc., 274 F.Supp.2d 33, 44–45 (D.D.C. 2003); see also Mazloum v. Dist. of Columbia Metro. Police Dep’t, 522 F.Supp.2d 24, 37 (D.D.C. 2007). As relevant here, among the activities enumerated are “the making, performance, modification, and termination of contracts.” 42 U.S.C. § 1981(b). Section 1981 “can be violated only by purposeful discrimination.” Gen. Bldg. Contractors Ass’n v. Pennsylvania, 458 U.S. 375, 391 (1982).

         Courts analyze Section 1981 claims under the familiar burden-shifting framework of McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973). See Nanko Shipping, USA v. Alcoa, Inc., 850 F.3d 461, 467 (D.C. Cir. 2017). On summary judgment, the operative question is whether the plaintiff produced enough evidence for a reasonable jury to find that the defendant intentionally discriminated against the plaintiff on the basis of race. See Ayissi-Etoh v. Fannie Mae, 712 F.3d 572, 576 (D.C. Cir. 2013). For example, a plaintiff may show that he was treated less favorably than another similarly situated person of a different race. Brown v. Sessoms, 774 F.3d 1016, 1023 (D.C. Cir. 2014).

         So the plaintiff must first make out a prima facie case of racial discrimination. Mazloum, 522 F.Supp.2d at 37. Then the defendant must come forward with a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the challenged action. See Texas Dep’t of Cmty. Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248, 254–55 (1981). If the defendant does so, the McDonnell Douglas framework falls away, and the factfinder must decide the ultimate question: has the plaintiff proven intentional discrimination? St. Mary’s Honor Ctr. v. Hicks, 509 U.S. 502, 510–12 (1993). The plaintiff can survive summary judgment by providing enough evidence for a ...


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