The Supreme Court today issued a judicial smackdown to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, unanimously reversing its decision in Lewis v. City of Chicago (as we suggested it should when we reviewed the details of this case back in October!). Briefly put, the plaintiffs are a group of approximately 6,000 black firefighter applicants who filed charges of race discrimination with the EEOC more than 300 days after the initial announcement of their application test results, but within 300 days of the hiring of the new firefighter class from which they allege they were denied consideration. The Seventh Circuit held that the “discrimination was complete when the tests were scored…and the applicants learned the results.”
Justice Scalia, writing for the entire Court, stated that because there is no dispute that the claim was filed within 300 days of the hiring of the new class, the issue in this case is not “whether a claim predicated on the [on the hiring of the new firefighter class] is timely, but whether the practice thus defined can be the basis for a disparate-impact claim at all.” (Emphasis in original.) In other words, while the parties agreed that the adoption of a practice had a disparate impact, the real question was whether a cause of action can arise from the application of that same practice. The Court held that it could. Citing its recent opinion in another firefighter test case—Ricci v. DeStefano, the court noted that “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.”
Per the Court, the City believes that this decision “will result in a host of practical problems for employers and employees alike,” in that it may subject employers to an increased number of disparate-impact lawsuits based on long-stranding practices. That may, in fact, be true. Following this decision, any employer engaging in a practice whose application may result in a disparate impact on some protected classification of employees should take the time to reevaluate that practice. While there may be a legitimate business defense for the practice (as remains to be seen in the Lewis case on remand), it’s going to be easier for employees to get their foot in the door and state a claim.