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Supreme Court decides Chicago Firefighters’ case



On May 24, the Supreme Court decided Lewis v. City of Chicago, which makes it easier for an employee to challenge an allegedly discriminatory employment practice.  In particular, the court held that a plaintiff met the 300 day statute of limitations for challenging 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 “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 for the next stage of the application process.  Each time, the city started 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 who had not been hired 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 only those applicants who scored 89 or above resulted in 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 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 reinstated the district court’s decision.  Because the first charge of discrimination was filed within 300 days of the City’s use of the test scores, it was timely filed.   Each time that the City relied on the same list, it constituted a separate discriminatory act and re-started the 300 day clock.  In other words, even if a plaintiff does not challege the adoption of a practice within 300 days, he may challenge the later application of that practice.

This decision is noteworthy for two reasons.  First, both of my grandfathers were firefighters for the City of Chicago.  (My namesake, Thomas J. Conley, died in the line of duty.)  Second, my friend and University of St. Thomas Law Professor Rob Vischer was the law clerk for the District Court judge who ruled for the plaintiffs and was ultimately upheld by the Supreme Court.

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