Supreme Court Cases
Arthur Lewis, Jr., et al. v. City of Chicago
Issue: When a plaintiff is challenging the use of a discriminatory examination, when must she file a charge of discrimination?
Background and Lower Court Decisions
Employment discrimination law allows workers and applicants to challenge selection procedures, like written or physical examinations, that have a disparate impact. Employment discrimination law also requires that a charge of discrimination be filed within 300 days (or 180 days, depending on the state) of the discriminatory act.
In 1995, the City of Chicago used a written test to screen firefighter applicants; it ranked the applicants into three groups: “qualified”, “well-qualified”, and “not qualified”. The division between “well-qualified” and “qualified” had a large adverse impact on African American test takers; white test takers were five times more likely to be ranked “well-qualified” than Black test takers. The City announced the results of the examination and that it would start to hire from those in the “well-qualified” group first. The City informed those who were ranked “qualified” that it was unclear how many positions would be open, and therefore they would be kept on a list of eligible candidates until such time as all positions were filled. Ultimately, the City hired 77% white and 9% Black applicants, from a pool of applicants that was 45% white and 36% Black.
The Black applicants in the “qualified” group sued within 300 days of the City’s hiring decisions, but more than 300 days after the announcement of the test results. The case went to trial and the applicants were able to show that the decision to put test-takers into “qualified” and “well-qualified” groups had a disparate impact against Blacks and was not justified by business necessity. On appeal, the City’s only argument was that the original charge of discrimination was untimely and thus the entire case should be thrown out. The appellate court agreed and vacated the trial court’s judgment.
What is at Stake
A decision for the City in this case would be a severe blow to civil rights enforcement. Requiring applicants to file a claim of discrimination before the results of a test have been used does not comport with discrimination law and is poor policy. Such a ruling would force applicants to sue before they knew if they were being hired or not, and would allow employers to get away with using discriminatory selection procedures as long as the procedure was not challenged within the first 300 days of its adoption.
Oral argument in this case is scheduled for February 2, 2010.