Black Firefighter Applicants Win Supreme Court Backing

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The United States Supreme Court has ruled in favor of a group of black applicants, who are suing the city of Chicago for discrimination after they were denied jobs with its Fire Department.

The case dates back to 1995, when some 26,000 applicants tested to join the Chicago Fire Department. The city, which had only a few hundred jobs to offer, decided to raise the exam cutoff score from 64 to 89. The applicants whose scores fell in between those numbers were told that they probably would not be hired, despite having passed the test. The majority of applicants whose scores were 89 or over, however, were white; only 11 percent of that group were black.

The law states that an applicant who feels they have been unlawfully excluded from an employment position must bring suit within 300 days. Although the test scores were originally announced
on January 26, 1996, the plaintiffs in the case say that the clock shouldn’t have started running until after those scores were used to select firefighter trainees—which occurred on several different occasions between May 1996 and October 2001.

Approximately 6,000 black applicants brought suit against the city, and U.S. District Judge Joan Gottschall ruled in 2006 that the city had not justified the use of the higher cutoff score, that applicants who scored in the 70s or 80s could become successful firefighters, and that the test therefore had an illegal “disparate impact.”

Next in the legal timeline came a reversal from the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, which said that the applicants had waited too long to sue.

In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the lawsuit had not been filed too late, and that the African American applicants were now free to forge ahead with their legal challenge.

Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the court, declared that “It may be true that the City’s January 1996 decision to adopt the cutoff score (and to create a list of the applicants above it) gave rise to a freestanding disparate impact claim. … 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. If petitioners could prove that the City ‘used’ the ‘practice’ that ’causes a disparate impact,’ they could prevail.”

Chicago’s Fire Department has responded to the long-running legal brouhaha by trying to diversify its workforce, recruiting extensively in minority neighborhoods, and changing the written exam to make it pass/fail.

 

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