Federal Hate Crimes Act May Apply to Workplace Misconduct


In a case of first impression throughout the U.S., the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit (which covers Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, and the Carolinas) held that the Federal Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 may apply to violent crime that interferes with ongoing economic or commercial activity in the workplace.

Background of the Case. In U.S. v. Hill, an employee repeatedly punched another employee in the face without provocation, admittedly because the victim was gay. The employee was then indicted under the Hate Crimes Act, which was enacted to strengthen federal efforts to combat crimes targeting victims based on certain protected characteristics. Because the Hate Crimes Act was enacted pursuant to Congress’ authority to regulate commerce under the Commerce Clause of the Constitution, it prohibits conduct that, in relevant part, “interferes with commercial or other economic activity in which the victim is engaged at the time of the conduct.”

The employee argued that the application of the Hate Crimes Act to his assault of a co-worker was unconstitutional. The federal district court found that the Hate Crimes Act exceeded Congress’ Commerce Clause authority, because, as applied to a workplace assault, it did not regulate activity substantially affecting interstate commerce.

The Court’s Ruling. The Fourth Circuit, however, disagreed with the district court, instead finding that Congress had the power to proscribe violent conduct interfering with or affecting commerce, even when such impact is minimal. In this particular case, by “interfering” with the co-worker’s packing and shipping activities, which were undeniably economic, the employee’s conduct “substantially affect[ed] interstate commerce.”

Lessons Learned. This ruling offers an interesting and unusual means of addressing discrimination in the workplace, although it is an option that lies in the hands of the government and not the employer.