Elm City firefighter case goes to Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court announced Friday it would hear the reverse discrimination case appealed from lower courts by 20 New Haven firefighters who claimed they were denied the opportunity for a promotion because of their race.

The case addresses the question of whether an employer can disregard the results of a promotion exam because it produced too many qualified applicants of one race and not enough of another. The Court’s ruling will affect how the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment is applied, according to the dissenting opinion of one judge in the 2nd U.S. District Court of Appeals, which ruled to toss out the case. Still, the city said its actions did not violate the Equal Protection Clause because every applicant was treated the same: The results for applicants of all races were discarded.

Nineteen white firefighters and one Hispanic firefighter sued the city of New Haven in 2004 after the city threw out the results of a 2003 promotion exams for lieutenant and captain. No blacks had scored well enough to get promotions, and city officials at the time said they feared that promoting the white firefighters might have caused the low-scoring black firefighters to bring a discrimination suit.

Of the 118 firefighters who took the examination, 26 were black and 23 were Hispanic. No blacks and at most two Hispanics scored well enough to be eligible for promotions.

The plaintiffs argued that the exam was not racially biased and that those who passed the exam just studied harder. The results of the exams were thrown out for political reasons, they said, and the racial disparities in the results of the promotion test were no larger than the disparities in the results of previous tests and therefore should have been allowed to stand.

City Hall issued a statement saying it looks forward to presenting its case to the Court.

“While the City is not surprised that the Supreme Court decided to grant cert in this case, it remains confident that the 2nd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals correctly decided the issue,” the statement said. In a 48-page opinion, the District Court in New Haven agreed with the city and dismissed the case on a summary judgment, saying employers cannot use a test in hiring decisions that have a “disproportionate racial impact” on minorities, fewer of whom might be accepted for promotions.

The central arguments in the case, Ricci v. DeStefano, center on whether the promotion test was job-related and the best way to measure the firefighter’s aptitude for being a captain or lieutenant. Title VII says employers cannot use a test that has a “disparate impact” on an ethnic group if there are less discriminatory alternatives for the selection process.

The New Haven Civilian Service Board held hearings in 2004 to determine whether to certify the test. At hearings several outside experts disagreed on whether on the test was racially biased and if there were better alternatives to predict job performance, such as “situation judgment” tests based on demonstrated knowledge. But test designers said they put in substantial effort to ensure the written test was race-neutral.

On appeal, in a ruling with only one substantive paragraph, a three-judge panel of the New York-based 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the lower court’s decision.

The brevity of the panel’s ruling disturbed some justices on the Appeals Court, but in a 7-6 vote, the whole Appeals court declined to rehear the case. The six dissenting justices, who said in their dissent the three-judge panel’s “perfunctory disposition rests uneasily with the weighty issues presented by this appeal,” asked the Supreme Court to hear the case.

“While we cannot predict what the outcome of the Supreme Court review will be,” Karen Torre, the attorney representing the firefighters said in a statement, “we hope that this case will restore the civil service to what it should be: a public work force of the very best chosen on the basis of individual merit, free of the divisive politics of race.”

According to the dissent by judges in the 2nd U.S. District Court of Appeals, the case will be the first to bring the issue of discarding test results solely on the basis of the race of high-scoring applicants to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear the case in April.


  • YLS '07

    This article was an improvement on the YDN's first effort to tackle this story (by the same reporter a couple of days ago). By adding more detail, and saying a little bit about what the law of "disparate impact" actually says, this version gave readers a bit more of an idea what's going on here.

    Still, it's missing the biggest detail. The City argued for throwing out the test not just by saying that using the test "might have caused the low-scoring black firefighters to bring a discrimination suit." The City said, as I understand it, that they thought they would likely LOSE a lawsuit by black firefighters if the test results got certified. That is, the City didn't have much faith in its own test -- or anyway, didn't think it would hold up in court. Whether the City was right about that, I don't know. But it's a pretty important part of the story.

    The law says it's illegal to use a test that has a disparate impact on any racial group when there is a less discriminatory alternative. It would be very strange if the law also said, "but once you've given such an illegal test, it's also illegal to throw it out and start again." But maybe that's what the law will say, if the plaintiffs win…?