The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that
black firefighters did not miss the deadline to file a cause of action for
race discrimination against the City of Chicago, holding that reliance on a discriminatory
test administered in the past can constitute a new violation of Title VII.
Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, employers are prohibited
from discriminating on the basis of race. Race discrimination often occurs
through facially “neutral” practices that have the effect
of screening out minority applicants and employees, such as employment
tests, appearance and dress codes, English-only rules.
At issue in Lewis v. City of Chicago was a written employment test administered
to more than 26,000 firefighter applicants. The City of Chicago stated
that everyone who scored above a 65 on the test was qualified, but would
only hire those who were “well qualified” – i.e. those
individuals who scored an 89 or better.
The firefighters brought a lawsuit under Title VII for race discrimination
based on a disparate impact theory, i.e. that they were denied jobs as
the result of a flawed employment test. In order to fall within the 300-day
deadline to file a claim, the firefighters asserted that each time the
fire department relied on the test to make a hiring decision a separate
act of discrimination occurred, and hence constituted a “continuing
The trial court agreed and held that the score of 89 was statistically
meaningless and had a “severe disparate impact against African-Americans.”
The appeals court reversed.
On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the appellate court decision.
Writing for the majority, Justice Scalia stated that each use of a forbidden
employment practice gave rise to a separate claim of discrimination. He
distinguished between disparate impact and disparate treatment claims,
noting that for disparate impact claims deliberate discrimination need
not be shown within the limitations period. Although Scalia acknowledged
this decision might allow suits for long-established practices, ruling
otherwise would allow employers to use “an unlawful practice with
Discriminatory practices may not be obvious and may often be entrenched
within a company’s operation. However, where a practice has a disparate
impact on a protected class, a cause of action for discrimination may exist.
If you believe you have been the victim of employment discrimination, please
contact Buckley Beal LLP, a Georgia law firm dedicated to protecting individual’s rights
in the workplace.