Ricci v. DeStefanoJune 30, 2009
In a decision that could have far-reaching implications for employers and the labor force nationwide, yesterday the U.S. Supreme Court voted 5-4 in favor of the firefighter plaintiffs in the case Ricci v. DeStefano.
In Ricci, 20 white firefighters and one Hispanic firefighter sued the city of New Haven, Connecticut, for throwing out the results of a 2003 promotional exam for which they received passing test scores. Since only one Hispanic and not a single African American firefighter received qualifying scores, New Haven feared the test had a disparate impact on minority applicants — which in the city’s estimation would have resulted in a violation of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act — and thus decided to withhold offering promotions. The suing firefighters, in turn, argued that their Title VII rights protecting them against employment discrimination had been violated by the city’s decision.
District Judge Janet Bond Arterton dismissed the firefighters’ suit before it went to trial, ruling the decision to discard the test results was justified under the law. The case then went before a panel of judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, which unanimously affirmed the lower court’s decision. The case proceeded to be heard by the full 2nd Circuit, which upheld the panel’s ruling in a 7-6 decision. An appeal was then made to the Supreme Court.
In March, AAUW joined the National Women’s Law Center, in conjunction with the National Partnership for Women and Families, in signing an amicus brief in support of the defendants prior to the oral arguments before the Supreme Court. The brief AAUW signed was in support of the city of New Haven’s position that if the court were to rule in favor of the petitioners, it could severely chill efforts by employers to comply with Title VII and eliminate sex-based barriers in employment. Unfortunately, the court ruled in favor of the petitioners.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion, was joined by Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Chief Justice John Roberts in ruling that New Haven violated Title VII. “The city rejected the test results because too many whites and not enough minorities would be promoted,” Kennedy wrote. “Without some other justification, this express, race-based decision-making violates Title VII’s command that employers cannot take adverse employment actions because of an individual’s race.”
Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, David Souter, and John Paul Stevens dissented. Justice Ginsburg wrote the minority opinion decrying the decision, in which she argued that the city of New Haven acted appropriately toward the goal of eliminating all race- and sex-based barriers in the workplace, considering that persons of color comprise 60 percent of New Haven’s population and there is a history of race discrimination in the firefighting department in that city.
The law still requires employers to avoid policies that are discriminatory in practice, and we hope that despite this ruling, employers will try to make sure they are providing equal opportunity in the workplace for their employees.
This blog post was co-authored by Adam Zimmerman, AAUW regulatory affairs manager.