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Supreme Court Rules that Chicago Firefighter Discrimination Suit can Continue

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously today that 6,000 black applicants to the Chicago fire department can proceed with their discrimination lawsuit even though their complaint was filed more than 300 days after the incident. The group sued the city of Chicago under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, claiming that "the test had a disparate impact on black applicants and was not a valid test of firefighting aptitude." Under Title VII, the complaint needed to be filed no more than 300 days after the applicants were informed of their test scores.

The Supreme Court ruling (see PDF) indicated that the group could sue on the basis of discrimination under Title VII for 300 days after each instance of discrimination.

In the current case, the city of Chicago gave a written examination to all applicants to the fire department in 1995. According to UPI, the city decided in January 1996 that they would only consider applicants in the "well-qualified" group, those who scored between 89 and 100 points on the test. Those scoring between 65 and 88 were considered "qualified," but were kept on a list and rarely considered for positions. The plaintiffs' suit claimed that this methodology had a "disparate impact" on black and minority applicants because the 89 point cutoff excluded a large percentage of minority applicants.

According to Chicago Breaking News, District Judge Joan Gottschall ruled in 2005 that the use of the cut-off score was not justified by the city and thus deemed the test illegal. Later, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the applicants had waited too long to file suit, which led to the Supreme Court Appeal.

Justice Antonin Scalia, who authored the opinion, wrote "The City and its amici warn that our reading will result in a host of practical problems for employers and employees alike. Employers may face new disparate-impact suits for practices they have used regularly for years. Evidence essential to their business-necessity defenses might be unavailable (or in the case of witnesses' memories, unreliable) by the time the later suits are brought. And affected employees and prospective employees may not even know they have claims if they are unaware the employer is still applying the disputed practice. Truth to tell, however, both readings of the statute produce puzzling results. Under the City's reading, if an employer adopts an unlawful practice and no timely charge is brought, it can continue using the practice indefinitely, with impunity, despite ongoing disparate impact."

Media Resources: Supreme Court Ruling 5/24/10; UPI 4/24/10; Chicago Breaking News 5/24/10; Feminist Daily Newswire 2/25/10

© Feminist Majority Foundation, publisher of Ms. magazine

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