(CN) - Thousands of black firefighter applicants can proceed with a lawsuit accusing Chicago of refusing to hire them based on a racially discriminating exam, the Supreme Court ruled Monday.
The high court unanimously reinstated the black applicants' lawsuit, which the 7th Circuit had dismissed as having been filed too late.
The ruling comes 11 months after the Supreme Court's landmark 5-4 decision in Ricci v. DeStefano, which held that New Haven, Conn., violated the civil rights of white firefighters by tossing the results of a promotion exam on the basis that no blacks and only one Hispanic passed.
In Monday's ruling, the justices said black firefighter applicants can sue over Chicago's application of the exam results, which labeled them "qualified" instead of "well qualified." Chicago hired only well-qualified candidates, most of whom were white. Blacks made up just 11.5 percent of the "well qualified" pool, though they accounted for about 37 percent of Chicago's population in 2000.
About 6,000 "qualified" black applicants sued 430 days after the test results were announced, and 181 days after the second round of hiring. Debate hinged on whether sorting the scores constituted the sole discriminatory action, or if Chicago can be sued each time it used the score classifications to deny jobs.
The 7th Circuit had dismissed the lawsuit as untimely, because it was filed more than 300 days after the city's classification process. Hiring only well-qualified applicants "was the automatic consequence of the test scores rather than the product of a fresh act of discrimination," the federal appeals court had ruled.
The high court disagreed, ruling that the applicants can challenge the city's later application of that practice.
Citing federal law, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote that a plaintiff "establishes a prima facie disparate-impact claim by showing that the employer 'uses a particular employment practice that causes a disparate impact' on one of the prohibited bases" (original emphasis).
The plaintiffs claimed the city used their "qualified" status to deny them jobs in each round of the selection process, an exclusion that had a disparate impact on minorities.
"Whether they adequately proved that is not before us," Scalia said. "What matters is that their allegations, based on the city's actual implementation of its policy, stated a cognizable claim."
He acknowledged the city's warning that a ruling for the applicants will trigger "a host of practical problems for employers and employees," but said the Supreme Court must "give effect to the law Congress enacted."
"It is not our task to assess the consequences of each approach and adopt the one that produces the least mischief," Scalia wrote.
The high court reinstated the lawsuit, leaving it to the 7th Circuit to decide if the district court's order should be modified. A federal judge had ordered the city to hire 132 randomly selected black firefighter applicants and awarded back-pay to the remaining class members.
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