May 24, 2010

Supreme Court Decides Lewis v. City of Chicago

On May 24, the Supreme Court decided Lewis v. City of Chicago, No. 08-974, holding that a plaintiff alleging a disparate-impact claim can timely file a charge of discrimination within 300 days of an employer's application of an allegedly discriminatory employment practice, even if the practice was adopted earlier.

In 1995, the City of Chicago gave a written examination to over 26,000 applicants to the Chicago Fire Department. Using the results of the examination, the City divided applicants into three categories. Those who scored 89 or above were designated "well qualified." Those who scored between 65 and 88 were designated "qualified" and were notified that they had passed the examination but that, based on the City's projected hiring needs, they were unlikely to be called for further processing. Finally, those who scored below 65 were told they would no longer be considered for a firefighter position because they had failed the test. Applicants in the first two categories were placed on an "eligible list." For approximately six years, the City used the eligible list on 11 different occasions to randomly select applicants to proceed to the next stage of the application process, in each instance starting with the "well qualified" applicants. Not until the eleventh occasions did the City exhaust the "well qualified" pool and randomly selected any applicants from the "qualified" category.

On March 31, 1997, an African-American applicant who scored in the "qualified" range and had not been hired as a candidate firefighter, filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC. Five others followed suit, and the EEOC issued right-to-sue letters to all six individuals. They subsequently filed a class-action lawsuit against the City, alleging that its practice of selecting for advancement only those applicants who scored 89 or above caused a disparate impact on African-Americans in violation of Title VII. The district court certified a class, denied the City's motion for summary judgment challenging the timeliness of the claims, and ultimately conducted a bench trial and entered judgment in favor of the plaintiff class. The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed, holding that the claims were untimely because the earliest EEOC charge was filed more than 300 days after the city had adopted its system of classification.

The Supreme Court reversed. It noted that, under the applicable statutory language, 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. The plaintiff class identified the allegedly discriminatory conduct as the use of the test scores to exclude passing applicants who scored below 89 when selecting those who would advance in the application process. Because the first charge of discrimination was filed within 300 days of the City's use of the test scores to select applicants from the eligible list, it was timely filed. The Court specifically noted that the question of whether plaintiffs adequately proved their claim was not before it and remanded the case to the Seventh Circuit for resolution of other issues.

Justice Scalia delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

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