Supreme Court Finds Black Firefighters’ Race Discrimination Claim Timely

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 violation.”

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 impunity.”

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 Bala Wilson Mew LLP, a Georgia law firm dedicated to protecting individual’s rights in the workplace.