CHICAGO (CN) – The City of Chicago must hire 111 black firefighter applicants and pay $30 million in loss-of-chance damages as a result of a discriminatory civil service examination.
In 1995, the City administered a written examination to 26,000 firefighter applicants. Those who scored above a 65 were rated “qualified,” but only “highly qualified” candidates who scored above 89 were considered.
From 1996 to 2001, the City hired eleven groups of applicants, choosing randomly from the “highly qualified” pool. After receiving right-to-sue letters from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1998, a group of unsuccessful applicants from the “qualified” pool of firefighter applicants filed a class action, alleging that the cutoff at 89 had a disparate impact on black candidates.
At trial, the City conceded that the cutoff score created a disparate impact but explained that the selection criteria were “job related… and consistent with business necessity.”
A federal district court rejected the defense, awarding the plaintiffs damages while also ordering the city to hire 132 class members.
The city appealed, basing its case solely on whether or not the discrimination claims had been timely filed.
The 7th Circuit struck down the ruling, finding that over 300 days had passed between when the test was conducted and when the suit was filed.
The Supreme Court reversed, holding that in disparate-impact litigation the limitations period starts anew whenever the employer uses the faulty test to make hiring decisions. However, the ruling reduced the number of plaintiffs eligible for relief, eliminating those whose claims were based on the first wave of hiring.
According to the 7th Circuit, other testing methods could have prevented the payout. “If the City had hired in rank order, as many civil service employers do, things would have been different… Perhaps it would have been ‘consistent with business necessity’ to hire those who scored 100 ahead of those who scored 85,” Chief Judge Frank Easterbrook wrote.
Of the 6,000 applicants, 111 will be offered firefighting jobs. Back-pay for these 111 – estimated at $30 million – will be split among the remaining class members.
According to the African-American Firefighters and Paramedics League of Chicago, black firefighters still make up only 18 percent of the force. The City of Chicago now uses a pass/fail test to screen applicants.