A class of 6,000 African-Americans who sued the city of Chicago for race bias in its hiring of firefighters did not bring untimely discrimination charges, the U.S. Supreme Court held on Monday.
In Lewis v. City of Chicago, the justices unanimously held that when an employer institutes a practice having an illegal discriminatory -- disparate -- impact, it may be challenged each time the employer uses it.
"Today, the Supreme Court affirmed that job-seekers should not be denied justice based on a technicality," said John Payton, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, in a statement. Payton, who argued the case, added, "This victory goes well beyond the immediate results in Chicago. It should ensure that no other fire department or employer uses a discriminatory test."
The Court's decision reverses a ruling by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that held the claims were time-barred.
The Supreme Court case goes back to 1995 when Chicago gave a written test to about 26,000 applicants for firefighter positions. In January 1996, the city announced it would begin filling those jobs by drawing from the top tier of scorers -- those who scored at least 89 of a possible 100 points -- whom the city called "well qualified." Those who scored below 65 were told they had failed the exam. Those who scored from 65 to 88 were called "qualified" and were told they were unlikely to be hired but their names would be kept on a list of eligible applicants.
The city selected its first class in May 1996 and filled nine more classes during the next several years. The well-qualified group was 76 percent white and 11.5 percent black. In March 2007, a group of "qualified" black applicants filed discrimination charges, claiming that the city's practice of selecting only those who scored 89 or above caused a disparate impact on African-Americans. The district court certified a class of 6,000 "qualified" African-Americans.
The city conceded that its practice was unlawful, but it argued that the class claims were time-barred because they were not filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission within 300 days of when the claims accrued -- which the city said was January 1996, when the tests were scored and the results announced. The court rejected that argument and, after a bench trial, the judge ruled for the class, awarding back pay and ordering the city to hire 132 class members. That ruling was reversed by the 7th Circuit.
In reversing the circuit court, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote, "The City is correct that if the adoption of the cutoff score in 1996 gave rise to a freestanding claim, petitioners waited too long to bring such a claim. But it does not follow that no new violation could occur when the City implemented that decision down the road."
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he wrote, requires a complaining party to show that the employer "uses" a particular practice that causes a disparate impact on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.
Reacting to the decision, some lawyers for employers said it would create practical problems for employers in assessing their potential liability for certain job practices.
For example, employers first face risk exposure in adopting an employment practice that could have an unlawful disparate impact, noted Debra Friedman, a partner at Philadelphia's Cozen O'Connor. And second, whether or not the adoption of that practice is challenged, they face exposure because its subsequent use can be challenged.
However, Scalia said it was not the Court's task to assess the consequences of the approaches urged by the firefighters or the city.
"Our charge is to give effect to the law Congress enacted," he wrote. In enacting the disparate-impact provisions in Title VII, Scalia added, "Congress allowed claims to be brought against an employer who uses a practice that causes disparate impact, whatever the employer's motives and whether or not he has employed the same practice in the past. If that effect was unintended, it is a problem for Congress, not one that federal courts can fix."
Deputy Corporation Counsel Benna Ruth Solomon represented Chicago in the Supreme Court.
The Chicago case was being closely followed by civil rights and employment groups because of recent decisions that they viewed as hostile to minorities or employees. Last term in Ricci v. DeStefano, a 5-4 Court ruled in favor of white firefighters who sued New Haven, Conn., for discarding the results of a promotion exam because it had a disparate impact on minority firefighters. And in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., a 5-4 Court ruled in 2007 that Lilly Ledbetter's pay discrimination charges were time-barred. Congress responded with the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2008.