Supreme Court: Black Firefighters Can Sue Chicago

By Jason Beahm on May 25, 2010 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The Supreme Court issued a 9-0 ruling in favor of a group of black firefighters, finding they did not wait too long to sue the city of Chicago over alleged discrimination. The decision, in essence, found that despite a delay in filing the suit from the time of the initial violation, the case can still proceed because the violations were ongoing.

Just last year, the Supreme Court ruled on a firefighting examination issue. In a 5-4 opinion, the Court held that the state of Connecticut was liable to white firefighters when it invalidated an exam under which no black firefighters scored high enough on to be promoted to lieutenant or captain.

Today, the Court ruled in Lewis v. City of Chicago, a suit brought by a class of 6,000 black firefighters who alleged that they missed employment and promotion opportunities in Chicago firefighting jobs in the 1990s because an entry-level test had a "disparate impact" that was race based.

Disparate impact is a theory of liability that prohibits an employer from using a facially neutral employment practice that has an unjustified adverse impact on members of a protected class. A facially neutral employment practice is one that does not appear to be discriminatory on its face; rather it is one that is discriminatory in its application or effect.

The Justices found the city was liable to firefighters who reached minimum levels on the test but were passed over for higher scoring candidates. In some ways, the entire situation has become a bit of a "Catch-22" for cities trying to design exams. If a particular class of people scores poorly, the testing authorities could be sued for making decisions based on the results. But, if the authorities throw the results out, in some instances they could be sued for that as well.

Near the end of the opinion, Justice Scalia touched on this issue, but remarked that the courts have a limited role in the matter by which they must abide:

Congress allowed claims to be brought against an employer who uses a practice that causes disparate impact, whatever the employer's motives and whether or not he has employed the same practice in the past. If that effect was unintended, it is a problem for Congress, not one that federal courts can fix.

The lawyer for the class of plaintiffs said that the damages in the case may reach $100 million.

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