Houston moves to toss some claims in lawsuit over minority contracting

Sun reflects off downtown buildings in Houston.

Buildings in downtown Houston reflect the light of a setting sun October 15, 2004. REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo Acquire Licensing Rights

  • City says claims should be tossed on technical grounds
  • White couple says program blocks contracts for their landscaping companies
  • High court ruling expected to spur challenges to diversity programs

Nov 14 (Reuters) – The city of Houston, Texas, has asked a federal judge to trim a lawsuit claiming that its program setting aside certain public contracts for minority-owned businesses violates the U.S. Constitution.

The city in a motion filed in Houston federal court on Monday said some of the claims by two landscaping companies owned by a white married couple should be dismissed on technical grounds.

The city said claims by Metropolitan Landscape Management Inc should be tossed because the company only applied for contracts with a private “management district” rather than the city itself.

The other company named as a plaintiff in the September lawsuit, Landscape Consultants of Texas Inc, cannot sue the city under a federal law barring race discrimination in contracts because the law does not apply to state or municipal governments, lawyers for Houston said in the motion. A different federal law applies to civil rights violations by state actors.

The plaintiffs also claim the city’s program violates their constitutional rights to equal protection by freezing them out of some city contracts because of their race.

The city’s motion does not discuss the merits of those claims and does not seek to dismiss Landscape Consultants’ constitutional challenge.

Erin Wilcox, a lawyer at the conservative Pacific Legal Foundation who represents the plaintiffs, said public contracts should be awarded based on merit and not race.

“Instead of defending a law that has treated contractors differently based on their race for nearly 40 years, Houston should focus on fulfilling its constitutional duty to treat all citizens equally,” Wilcox said in an email.

The lawsuit is among the latest to challenge affirmative action programs since the U.S. Supreme Court in June struck down race-conscious policies in college student admissions in rulings involving Harvard University and the University of North Carolina.

Under Houston’s program, the city sets annual numerical goals for awarding different types of contracts to businesses owned by minorities.

Between July 2021 and June 2022, about 24% of professional service contracts and about 14% of construction contracts were awarded to minority-owned businesses, according to the city.

The June Supreme Court ruling, while directly affecting only higher education, is expected to bolster legal challenges to various government programs and corporate workforce diversity initiatives.

In July, a federal judge in Tennessee cited the decision in ruling that the U.S. Small Business Administration could not assume that minority business owners were “socially disadvantaged,” making them eligible to bid on certain government contracts, without requiring them to provide any evidence beyond their race.

The case is Landscape Consultants of Texas Inc v. City of Houston, U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, No. 4:23-cv-03516.

For the plaintiffs: Joshua Thompson and Erin Wilcox of the Pacific Legal Foundation

For the city: Lori Yount and Darah Eckert of the Houston City Attorney’s office

Read more:

Houston sued over program setting aside public contracts for minorities

US Supreme Court rejects affirmative action in university admissions

US anti-affirmative action group challenges West Point admissions policy

Affirmative action ruling could place target on US corporate diversity programs

SBA accused of sidestepping court ruling on race-conscious program

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Dan Wiessner (@danwiessner) reports on labor and employment and immigration law, including litigation and policy making. He can be reached at

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