Supreme Court Allows Black Firefighter Lawsuit

Jesse J. Holland, MSNBC, May 24, 2010

The Supreme Court ruled Monday that a group of African Americans did not wait too long to sue Chicago over a hiring test they challenged as discriminatory, freeing them to collect a lower court judgment.

It is the second time in as many years that the high court has tackled discrimination in testing within the firefighting ranks. In a landmark case last year, the Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision said New Haven, Conn., violated white firefighters’ civil rights, throwing out an exam in which no African-Americans scored high enough to be promoted to lieutenant or captain.

In Monday’s opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the court that the applicants’ lawsuit over a city of Chicago test used to weed out potential firefighter trainee applicants was not too late.

“Today, the Supreme Court affirmed that job-seekers should not be denied justice based on a technicality,” said John Payton, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., who argued the case. {snip}

Second cutoff score

Anyone who scored 64 or below was deemed not qualified. But the city set a second cutoff score of 89 points.

Officials told applicants who scored below 89 but above 64 that although they passed the test, they likely would not be hired because of the large number of people who scored 89 or above. The majority of those in the top-scoring group were white; only 11 percent were black.

{snip}

Judge agrees with black applicants

A U.S. District judge agreed with the black applicants. After an eight-day trial, the federal judge ordered the city to hire 132 randomly selected African American applicants who scored above 64. The court also ordered the city to count up the backpay and divide it among the rest of the applicants.

The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago overturned that decision.

{snip}

City officials and business groups argue that the court’s decision allowing the black firefighter lawsuit and judgment will cause a host of legal problems for them, including opening them to lawsuits claiming unintended discrimination “for practices they have used regularly for years.”

{snip}

The case is Lewis v. Chicago, 08-974.

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