U.S. Supreme Court Issues Unanimous Opinion Allowing African-American Firefighters To Sue City Of Chicago Asserting Racial Discrimination Disparate Impact Claims

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It's not often that all nine members of the U.S. Supreme Court agree on the disposition of an employment law matter, but that's what happened in Lewis v. City of Chicago, issued on May 24, 2010 (No. 08-974).

The City of Chicago gave a written test in 1995 to 26,000 applicants for firefighter positions. In January 1996, the City notified the applicants of their test results, and depending on their scores, applicants were designated well-qualified (scoring 89 or above), qualified (scoring between 65 and 88), or not qualified (scoring below 65). They were further informed that only the well-qualified were likely to be hired but that the list of those who were merely qualified would be retained in case the well-qualified list was exhausted as positions were filled.

On March 31, 1997, Crawford Smith, a Black applicant who had scored in the qualified range and had not been hired, filed an EEOC Charge along with five other similarly situated applicants. They alleged that the City's practice of hiring only applicants who scored over 89 had a disparate impact on Black applicants. Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, an employment practice that causes a disparate impact on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin is unlawful, unless the employer can demonstrate that the challenged practice is job-related for the position in question. 42 U.S.C. §2000e-2(k)(1)(A). Smith argued that since he was deemed qualified there was no job-related reason to limit hiring to those who scored over 89.

The EEOC issued a right-to-sue notice and the applicants filed suit in federal district court. The City filed a motion for summary judgment, contending that the applicants had waited too long to file with the EEOC. There is a 300 day limitations period under Title VII for filing with EEOC, and in this case the Charge was filed more than a year after the applicants had received their test results. But, the City hired applicants from the well-qualified pool during the 300 day period prior to the filing of the Charge, and continued to periodically hire from the pool as additional fire fighters were needed.

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