U.S. Supreme Court

Supreme Court Allows Black Firefighters to Sue Chicago for Test's Disparate Impact


The U.S. Supreme Court is allowing a group of firefighters to sue the city of Chicago over alleged discrimination in an employment test.

The unanimous opinion (PDF) by Justice Antonin Scalia said the firefighters were not barred from suit, despite a claim that they had waited too long to challenge the test, according to SCOTUSblog and the Associated Press.

A lawyer for the class of 6,000 African Americans challenging the use of the test results has said damages in the case could reach $100 million, the Los Angeles Times reports. The story says the decision is “the latest twist in a long-running set of lawsuits over the use of civil-service exams for hiring police and firefighters.”

The plaintiffs had not challenged the initial test—the adoption of the alleged discriminatory practice—within a 300-day limit. But Scalia said each round of hiring from the test could be treated as an application of the discriminatory practice, and, as a result, the firefighters were not barred from a disparate impact claim, according to the opinion.

It may be true that the applicants’ failure to challenge the city’s initial scoring system gave rise to a freestanding disparate impact claim, Scalia said. “If that is so, the city is correct that since no timely charge was filed attacking it, the city is now ‘entitled to treat that past act as lawful,’ ” he wrote. “But it does not follow that no new violation occurred—and no new claims could arise—when the city implemented that decision down the road.”

Scalia distinguished the Supreme Court’s decision in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. That case dealt with disparate treatment claims, requiring proof of discriminatory intent within the limitations period, he said. But for disparate impact claims that do not require discriminatory intent, that demonstration isn’t needed, he said. The differences between the two cases, he said, were based on a reading of the federal statutes. (Congress later adopted a law that in effect overturns the Ledbetter decision.)

The case is Lewis v. City of Chicago.

It is the second firefighter discrimination case before the court within a year’s time. Last June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Ricci v. DeStefano that the city of New Haven, Conn., discriminated against white firefighters for tossing job test results because blacks got no top scores.

Updated at 11:50 a.m. to include Los Angeles Times coverage.

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