Courts and commentators often label federal discrimination statutes as torts. Since the late 1980s, the courts increasingly applied tort concepts to these statutes. This Article discusses how courts placed employment discrimination law within the organizational umbrella of tort law without examining whether the two areas share enough theoretical and doctrinal affinities.
While discrimination statutes are torts in some general sense that they do not arise out of criminal law and are not solely contractual, it is far from clear that these statutes are enough like traditional torts to justify the reflexive and automatic use of tort law. Employment discrimination statutes created large exceptions to common law ideas of at-will employment, and strong textual arguments militate against prioritizing tort law as source of meaning.
The tort label not only exaggerates the affinity between tort law and employment discrimination, it also overestimates the work that tort law can adequately perform in statutory interpretation. Tort law generally does not have independent descriptive power. It does not cohere around a narrow enough set of theoretical or doctrinal concepts to provide an answer or even a small subset of answers to many statutory questions. Over time, tort law responds to changing factual and legal landscapes, often while outwardly maintaining the same language.
To date, courts have failed to appreciate the complexity of tort law. Courts use cursory descriptions of tort law that characterize tort doctrine as narrower, more stable, and more consistent than it actually is. They have not considered whether tort concepts can and should be unmoored from the common law tradition, which anticipates that concepts can subtly change over time to fit new situations.
The federal courts view tort law as possessing narrow conceptions of causation and harm. Using this narrow tort frame leads to discrimination law that is primarily concerned with individual remedies, rather than a broader response to societal discrimination. The move to tort law is thus part of a broader story about the privatization of discrimination law that can be seen in the greater acceptance of private arbitration and the move away from systemic discrimination claims.
The primary problem of the tort label is its effect on discourse about fundamental questions regarding employment discrimination law. The prioritizing of a narrow view of tort law removes textually supportable options from statutory analysis without meaningful discussion about why the courts narrowed the potential statutory landscape. The courts never consider whether their narrow notions of tort causation and harm are reflected in the discrimination statutes’ text, intent or purpose. The primary aim of this Article is to urge courts to respect the complexity of the judgments at issue by resisting the simple, but also simplistic, allure of the reflexive use of tort law.
Sperino, Sandra F., "The Tort Label" (2014). Faculty Articles and Other Publications. 295.
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