Supreme Court considers arguments in City of New Haven race discrimination case
June 15, 2009
On April 22, 2009, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments from both parties in the case of Ricci v. DeStefano. In the Ricci case, 17 white firefighters and one Hispanic firefighter who passed promotional examinations filed claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution that the City of New Haven discriminated against them based on their race by refusing to certify the results of the exam because too few minority candidates passed. The Supreme Court granted certiorari after the U.S. District Court granted summary judgment to the City of New Haven, and the Second Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed. Circuit Judge Sonia Sotomayor, who was recently nominated by President Obama to serve on the Supreme Court, was on the three-member Second Circuit panel that affirmed the District Court's decision.
The facts of the case are fairly simple. In late 2003, 118 applicants took a written and oral exam administered by the New Haven Fire Department for promotion to the positions of Captain and Lieutenant. Of the 118 applicants, 68 were white, 27 were African-American, and 23 were Hispanic. Based on the results of the exam, no African-American or Hispanic candidates were eligible for promotion to the Lieutenant position. Only two Hispanic candidates and no African-American candidates were eligible for promotion to the Captain position. The City of New Haven refused to certify the results of the exam, and did not grant any promotions based on the results of the exam, due to its stated fear that it would face a disparate impact lawsuit from non-white applicants.
The fundamental legal issue is whether a municipal employer’s fear of a disparate impact race discrimination lawsuit is a valid basis to disregard the results of a promotional exam that would make disproportionately more white applicants eligible for promotion than minority applicants. In other words, can a municipal employer engage in disparate treatment based on race, due to a fear of a disparate impact lawsuit? The plaintiffs contend that the City of New Haven’s fear of a disparate impact lawsuit was not sufficient to justify making the decision to disregard the results of the exam. The plaintiffs urged the Supreme Court to hold that an employer must have a “strong basis in evidence” for believing that an exam violates the law, and argued that the City of New Haven did not make such a showing.
The City of New Haven contends that an employer need only have a reasonable basis for believing that it could lose a disparate impact lawsuit if it makes promotions based on the results of an exam. The City of New Haven argued that the District Court correctly held that its belief that it could lose a disparate impact lawsuit was reasonable, based on the disproportionate percentage of white applicants who passed the exam, concerns about the validity of the exam, and the possibility of alternate exams.
The U.S. Government filed an amicus brief in this case, and also presented its argument to the Supreme Court. The Government essentially supports the City of New Haven’s argument that an employer need only have a reasonable belief that it could be liable under a disparate impact theory, but asked the Supreme Court to remand the case back to the District Court for further consideration of whether the City of New Haven’s belief in this case was reasonable. The Government noted during oral argument that the District Court found that there were several motivations for the City’s decision to disregard the results of the exam, which included not only the disparate impact concern, but also a desire to promote diversity within the Fire Department and to develop managerial role models for aspiring firefighters. The Government’s counsel stated during oral argument that promoting diversity and developing managerial role models “do not fit into complying with the Title VII disparate impact test,” and that the District Court therefore needed to re-examine whether the disparate impact concern alone was reasonable.
The Supreme Court's decision in the case is expected to be issued before the end of its term in June.