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Black Firefighter Applicants Can Sue Chicago, Court Rules

The lawsuit alleges the Chicago Fire Department’s test disproportionately classified black applicants as qualified rather than well-qualified, and that it was not a valid test of their firefighting aptitude.

May 24, 2010
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WASHINGTON—The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday, May 24, ruled unanimously that 6,000 black Chicago firefighter applicants can proceed with their discrimination lawsuit against the city because their claim was filed in a timely fashion.

The focus of the court’s decision in Arthur L. Lewis Jr. et al. v. City of Chicago was a 1995 written test of more than 26,000 Chicago Fire Department applicants.

Based on their scores from grading the tests, the applicants were placed in three categories—well-qualified, qualified and not qualified, according to the opinion.

Applicants were told that those in the qualified category were unlikely to be hired because of the large number who scored as well-qualified, but that they would stay on the eligibility list as long as it was used.

Black applicants who scored in the qualified category brought the suit. The suit alleges the test disproportionately classified black applicants as qualified rather than well-qualified, and that it was not a valid test of their firefighting aptitude.

To file suit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, plaintiffs first must file a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Depending on the state, the allegation must be filed with the EEOC within 180 or 300 days after the alleged unlawful employment practice.

Attorneys for Chicago argued that the EEOC charge was “untimely” because it was filed March 21, 1997, or 420 days after notice of the test results was sent. The plaintiffs argued that the EEOC charge was valid because it was filed within 300 days after Chicago began hiring from the well-qualified list, in May 1996. A district court judge ruled for the firefighters, but the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the ruling in 2008 and sided with the city.

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the appeals court.

“We consider whether a plaintiff who does not file a timely charge challenging the adoption of a practice—here, an employer’s decision to exclude employment applicants who did not achieve a certain score on a an examination—may assert a disparate-impact claim in a timely charge challenging the employer’s later application of that practice.”

The court held that a plaintiff can. Under Title VII, a plaintiff establishes a prima facie disparate impact claim by showing that an employer uses a particular employment practice that causes a disparate impact. “Petitioners’ claims satisfied that requirement,” the high court ruled.

“The city and its amici warn that our reading will result in a host of practical problems for employers and employees alike,” the Supreme Court said in the ruling, which was written by Justice Antonin Scalia. “Employers may face new disparate-impact suits for practices they have used regularly for years.”

However, “Our charge is to give effect to the law Congress enacted.” If its effect is unintended, “it is a problem for Congress, not one that federal courts can fix,” the court ruled in remanding the case to the lower court for further proceedings.

Philip K. Miles III, an associate with State College, Pennsylvania-based McQuaide Blasko Attorneys at Law, said the ruling “should serve as a reminder to employers that they need to look at their practices even if they’ve been using them for years to make sure they’re not having a disparate impact now.”

Filed by Judy Greenwald of Business Insurance, a sister publication of Workforce Management. To comment, e-mail editors@workforce.com.

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