Supreme Court Rules on Chicago Fire Department Discrimination Case
The U.S. Supreme Court decided in a 9-0 ruling that the African-American plaintiffs in Lewis v. Chicago did not wait too long to sue the city of Chicago, and can proceed with their case. The plaintiffs are comprised of a class of African-Americans who claim that the Chicago Fire Department’s use of a written entry-level exam to determine hiring pools discriminated against African-Americans.
Background on the case. In 1995, over 26,000 people applied for a position with the Chicago Fire Department by taking a written test. In January 1996, the City announced that it would randomly select applicants whose score fell into the “well-qualified” range, 89 to 100, to proceed in the hiring process. Those who scored below 65 had been told they had failed and would not be considered during hiring. Applicants who scored between 65 and 88 were considered “qualified” but were informed that it was unlikely that they would become employed. However, they were told their applications would be kept on file in the event that the “well-qualified” applicant pool was ever used up in the future hiring rounds.
In 1997, Crawford Smith and five others, all African-Americans whose scores fell in the “qualified” range and were not selected for a possible firefighter position, filed a discrimination charge with the EEOC. The EEOC issued them right-to sue letters.
Soon after, they filed a civil action against the City, claiming that “the practice of selecting for advancement only applicants who scored 89 or above caused a disparate impact on African-Americans in violation of Title VII.” The District Court certified a class of over 6,000 African-Americans who took the 1995 exam, received a “qualified” score, and were not selected to advance in the hiring stage.
The City did not contest that the scoring system had a “severe disparate impact against African Americans,” but claimed that it was a business necessity. The business necessity defense was rejected by the District Court.
Then, the Seventh Circuit Court reversed the decision, ruling that the petitioners’ suit was filed more than 300 days after the discriminatory act—the sorting of the scores—and therefore was untimely.
The case was eventually brought to the Supreme Court who ruled in favor of the petitioners, saying that their suit was brought in a timely manner. They found that “for disparate-treatment claims—which require discriminatory intent—the plaintiff must deliberate discrimination within the limitations period. But no such demonstration is needed for claims, such as this one, that do not require discriminatory intent.”
The case was remanded to the Seventh Circuit.
The Supreme Court also noted that their opinion may cause problems for employers and employees when the situation is reversed, such as in Ricci v. DeStefano where the Supreme Court ruled in favor of white firefighters in bias case.
Other similar cases:
Portsmouth, Virginia City Settles Suit Over Testing for Firefighter Jobs
City Settles Suit Alleging Bias in Hiring Practices Ohio
Supreme Court – Opinion of the Court