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Financial Services Law Insights and Observations

6th Circuit: SBA can’t prioritize race or sex for Covid relief

Courts Appellate Sixth Circuit Covid-19 SBA

Courts

On May 27, the majority of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held that the Small Business Administration (SBA) cannot allocate limited Covid-19 relief funds based on the race and sex of the applicants. The plaintiff filed a lawsuit claiming the SBA’s practice of giving priority to certain Restaurant Revitalization Fund applicants (i.e. restaurants owned and controlled at least 51 percent by women, veterans, or the “socially and economically disadvantaged”) during the first 21 days violates the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection clause by impermissibly granting priority based on race and gender classifications. The plaintiff applied for funding on the first day the application period opened, but because the restaurant he co-owned 50/50 with his Hispanic wife was not owned 51 percent by a woman or a veteran, he faced an added evidentiary burden to show he qualified as “socially and economically disadvantaged” to get priority status. The plaintiff requested a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction to prohibit the SBA from granting funds unless it did so in a manner that ignored race and sex. The district court denied the request, as well as subsequent requests made by the plaintiff, ruling that he was unlikely to succeed on the merits of his claims.

On appeal, the majority of the Sixth Circuit disagreed, concluding that the district court should have issued an injunction pending appeal since the SBA “failed to justify its discriminatory policy.” According to the majority, the SBA “injected explicit racial and ethnic preferences into the priority process” by “presume[ing] certain applicants are socially disadvantaged based solely on their race or ethnicity.” Additionally, the majority stated that the “added evidentiary burden faced by white men and other non-presumptively disadvantaged groups stands in marked contrast with lenient evidentiary standards set by the American Rescue Plan Act,” and pointed out that “broad statistical disparities cited by the government are not nearly enough” to suggest intentional discrimination. Because “an effort to alleviate the effects of societal discrimination is not a compelling interest,” the majority stated, “the government’s policy is not permissible.” The majority also rejected the SBA’s argument that the issue was moot because the priority period for the program has ended, commenting that race and sex preferences continue to factor in whether an applicant receives funds before the program’s money runs out.

The dissenting judge argued, however, that the “Constitution permits the government to use race-based classifications to remediate past discrimination,” and added that the plaintiff has not demonstrated that he will be irreparably harmed by the way the program’s funds are distributed.

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