American Idol Contestants Sue for Alleged Race Discrimination

Posted August 9, 2013 in Litigation Your Personal Rights by

A group of black former American Idol contestants are suing the show, claiming its producers dismissed them because of their race.


Background Checks Targeted Blacks

Out of 12 seasons of the show, three black contestants – Ruben Studdard, Fantasia Barrino, and Candice Glover ­– and one bi-racial contestant – Jordin Sparks – won.

But the 10 former contestants, who ranged from season two in 2003 to season nine of the long-running televised singing contest owned by Fox and production company FremantleMedia, reportedly say the producers used criminal background checks on both black and white contestants but only used the results to dismiss black singers.

The former contestants were dismissed after the show discovered problems in their backgrounds that ranged from charges of identity theft and a misdemeanor conviction for marijuana possession to drunk driving charges and allegations of child abuse, according to the Huffington Post.

The plaintiffs, who are seeking class action status in federal court in New York, also say the producers used their backgrounds to publicly humiliate them in order to boost ratings. Although there were three times as many non-black contestants on the show, none of them have ever been disqualified, they allege 

Each of the plaintiffs wants $25 million in damages – putting a total of a quarter of a billion dollars on the line for Fox and FremantleMedia.


Not Employment Discrimination

The plaintiffs are using the contracts provision of a federal civil rights law, 42 U.S.C. Section 1981, that ensures equal rights to U.S. citizens regardless of race, explains Edward Buckley, a partner with Buckley & Klein in Atlanta who practices employment law. 

Edward Buckley headshot

Edward Buckley

Another federal law, known as Title VII, protects against employment discrimination based on race and is enforced by the EEOC. But the plaintiffs are not making a claim under that law, Buckley notes. 

“Under Section 1981 they do not have to be employees, although they may have been if they were paid some remuneration for their work on the show,” he says. “Section 1981 is broader than Title VII . . . and covers more categories of race discrimination than Title VII.”


More Hurdles for Blacks

Buckley explains that the plaintiffs will first have to show that a class should be certified, but even if they don’t get class action status they can still go forward with the suit.

“Then the contestants need to show that they were qualified to be a contestant, that they were treated less favorably from their non-black competitors, and ultimately that the less favorable treatment was because of their race,” he says.  

The fact that winners of the show included black contestants may or may not be relevant, Buckley says. 

“As the lawsuit is pled, it looks like the plaintiffs allege that black contestants faced more hurdles to qualifying than whites,” he notes, “so if the show was thinning the ranks of black contestants up front, even if some won, that would not preclude success in the plaintiffs’ discrimination claims.”

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