Latest Legal News: Supreme Court Hears New Firefighter Race Case

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In Lewis v. Chicago, Court Revisits Employment Discrimination Statute of Limitations, and Perhaps Race Discrimination


A case being heard by the Supreme Court today raises issues it addressed last year in Ricci v. DeStefano and in 2007's Ledbetter v. Goodyear, and has implications for all employers.Chicago uses a written exam to decide if applicants are qualified to be firefighters. In 1996 it announced that just passing -- and thus being "qualified" -- wasn't enough; to get hired, applicants needed a score of 89 or higher, which the city labeled "well-qualified."

While hiring these top scorers didn't result in a demonstrably better firefighting force, it did result in a whiter one. Some 20 months after the test was taken, 6,000 "qualified" but not "well-qualified" black applicants sued alleging the test illegally screened-out applicants on the basis of race. The black firefighters won at trial, and the city's appeal is now before the Supreme Court, conflating two issues that the Court controversially ruled on in the past few years.

The key question today is: Did the plaintiffs sue too late? That is, did the act of discrimination occur when the test results were announced, or each time the city hired on the basis of the results? Ledbetter suggests the Court will find the claim time-barred. In that 2007 case, the Court agreed that Lilly Ledbetter had been paid much less than her male colleagues purely because she was a woman; however, it ruled that the act of discrimination allowing her to sue was the original decision to pay her less, not each act of paying her less. As a result, she sued too late. Congress overturned the decision by resetting the statute of limitations to each pay period, however, the statute doesn't address the clock in a hiring case, as opposed to a pay case.

If the Court decides the case is not time-barred, perhaps deferring to Congress's recent affirmation of an intent to allow suits, the case may not be over. It's possible the Court will want to address the underlying discrimination claim, perhaps remanding for reconsideration in light of Ricci.

In last year's Ricci, the Supreme Court found that the City of New Haven had illegally denied white firefighters promotions that had been based on their passing a test the city decided, based on test results, illegally discriminated against black firefighters. The Court emphasized that a test disproportionately failed by a protected minority was not racial discrimination per se, proving discrimination required "objective" and "strong" evidence that the test was skewed against the minority. Did using the "well-qualified" category as opposed to "qualified" constitute objective and strong evidence that the test was skewed against blacks?

In Pending Landmark Gun Case, Will Justice Scalia Reverse Himself?

Justice Antonin Scalia is a key vote in the pending McDonald v. City of Chicago case that will decide if states are bound by the Federal Constitution's Second Amendment guaranty of an individual's right to own a gun. In his 1997 book, A Matter of Interpretation, he said "No." And if he has changed his mind, the outcome could be a powerful precedent for advancing rights he is ideologically less inclined to support.
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