Supreme Court rules for African-Americans in firefighter hiring case

Some 6,000 African-American applicants for jobs with the Chicago Fire Department can proceed with a discrimination lawsuit over the firefighter hiring test, the Supreme Court ruled Monday.

Charles Rex Arbogast/AP
Mara Georges, the city of Chicago's corporation counsel, responds to a Supreme Court ruling regarding a discrimination case filed by a group of African-Americans against Chicago over a firefighter hiring test.

The US Supreme Court ruled on Monday that some 6,000 African-American job applicants are entitled to pursue a discrimination lawsuit claiming a Chicago Fire Department hiring test created a disparate impact against minority candidates.

The justices unanimously reversed a federal appeals court decision that had thrown out the group’s class-action lawsuit on grounds that they had filed their challenge after a 300-day deadline had passed.

Writing for the court, Justice Antonin Scalia said lawsuits attacking ongoing employment practices that result in disparate impacts against minority groups are not tied to the same 300-day limitations period.

The decision marks the second time in two years the high court has grappled with claims of employment discrimination in fire department hiring tests. Last year the court ruled 5 to 4 for a group of white firefighters in New Haven, Conn., who claimed the city discriminated against them when it threw out a hiring test they had passed but in which no African-Americans tested high enough to win a promotion.

In the Chicago case, it was African-American applicants who sued, claiming that they suffered a disparate impact when the city divided candidates who passed a hiring test into two groups: “qualified” and “well qualified.”

A low proportion of African-Americans were in the “well-qualified” group that was used for hiring.

The dispute in Lewis v. City of Chicago stems from a 1995 test administered to 26,000 applicants to become firefighters. After the tests were scored, the city announced that it would fill open positions by drawing randomly from the top tier of scorers – those who received an 89 or higher. Those applicants were said to be “well qualified.”

The city also advised those in a second tier (scoring from 65 to 88) that they had passed the test and were “qualified,” but that they probably would not be hired given the large number of well-qualified applicants.

The city used this process 10 times from 1996 to 2002 to fill fire department vacancies.

In 1997, six African-Americans in the “qualified” pool filed a lawsuit claiming that hiring only from the “well-qualified” pool of applicants was causing a disparate impact on minority applicants. A federal judge later certified that there were roughly 6,000 similarly situated minority applicants.

After an eight-day trial, the judge ruled for the African-American applicants and ordered the city to randomly select 132 of the 6,000 “qualified” applicants for firefighter jobs.

The city appealed. The Seventh US Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the federal judge’s hiring order and threw the lawsuit out as untimely.

The appeals court found that the city had engaged in a single act of illegal discrimination when it created the categories of “well qualified” and “qualified.” But the court noted that the discrimination lawsuit was filed past the 300-day deadline from that event.

On Monday, the Supreme Court reversed that decision, stressing that the appeals court was wrong to focus on a single act of illegal discrimination.

“It may be true that the city’s January 1996 decision to adopt the cutoff score (and to create a list of the applicants above it) gave rise to a freestanding disparate-impact claim,” Justice Scalia wrote for the court. “But it does not follow that no new violations occurred – and no new claims could arise – when the city implemented that decision down the road.”

Scalia added: “If petitioners could prove that the city used the practice that causes a disparate impact, they could prevail.”

The justice noted that lawyers for Chicago warned that such a decision “will result in a host of practical problems for employers and employees.” But Scalia added: “It is not our task to assess the consequences of each approach and adopt the one that produces the least mischief. Our charge is to give effect to the law Congress enacted.”


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