High court finds Title VII violation in firefighter reverse discrimination case

[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website; JURIST news archive] on Monday overturned [opinion, PDF] a lower court ruling dismissing racial discrimination challenges to the promotion criteria used by the fire department of New Haven, CT. The Court ruled 5-4 in Ricci v. DeStefano [Cornell LII backgrounder; JURIST report] that a "strong basis in evidence" that an employer would be liable under a Title VII [text] disparate impact [EEOC backgrounder] analysis is necessary to justify a "race-based" action that would otherwise violate Title VII's disparate treatment standard. The Court ruled that summary judgment on disparate treatment grounds in favor of firefighters who were not promoted despite high test scores was appropriate, finding that the prima facie disparate impact case demonstrated by the City did not meet the "strong basis in evidence" standard. Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said that:


there is no evidence — let alone the required strong basis in evidence — that the tests were flawed because they were not job-related or because other, equally valid and less discriminatory tests were available to the City. Fear of litigation alone cannot justify an employer's reliance on race to the detriment of individuals who passed the examinations and qualified for promotions.

The Court also noted that a disparate impact suit brought as a result of the City certifying the test results would now fail because there is strong evidence that "had it not certified the results, it would have been subject to disparate treatment liability." Having resolved the issue on Title VII grounds, the Court did not reach the petitioners' Equal Protection [Cornell LII backgrounder] claim. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg filed a dissenting opinion in which Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter and Stephen Breyer joined.

The case gained prominence after Sonia Sotomayor [WH profile], who ruled on the case at the Second Circuit Court of Appeals [official website], was nominated [JURIST report] to fill the vacancy left by the retirement [JURIST report] of Justice David Souter. Sotomayor's confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee [official website] is scheduled to begin [JURIST report] on July 13.

 

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