Ricci v. DeStefano — Firefighters' Reverse Discrimination Claim Upheld

Ricci v. DeStefano

Firefighters� Reverse Discrimination Claim Upheld


Henry A. Arnett

Livorno and Arnett Co., LPA

1335 Dublin Road, Suite 108-B

Columbus, Ohio 43215

Telephone: 614-224-7771

The reverse discrimination claim filed by a group of white and Hispanic firefighters from New Haven, Connecticut, has been upheld by the United State Supreme Court. On June 29, 2009, in the case of Ricci v. DeStefano, the Court issued a ruling that the City of New Haven had violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 when it threw out the promotional test results which, had the City followed, would have resulted in those white and Hispanic candidates being promoted to lieutenant and captain positions in the New Haven Fire Department.

The promotional examinations were originally given by the City in 2003. The examinations were developed by an outside agency after extensive review of the City�s Fire department and input and participation from firefighters, including many minority firefighters. When the tests were administered, white candidates generally outperformed minority candidates, to the extent that only white and Hispanic candidates would have been selected to immediately fill existing vacancies in the Department if the test results were utilized. However, the City, based upon the racial disparity of the test results, threw out those results.

The candidates who would have been promoted pursuant to the test results filed a lawsuit, alleging that the City�s action was based on race and was in violation of Title VII and the Constitution�s equal protection clause. The City claimed the test results could be disregarded because those results might be used to show the City was discriminating on a disparate impact theory.

The firefighters� claims were rejected by the federal district and appellate courts. Interesting enough, Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor was one of the judges of the Court of Appeals that voted to uphold the City�s action in throwing out the test results, thereby rejecting the claims of the firefighters who were denied promotions as a result.

The Supreme Court, however, reversed, holding race-based action was impermissible under Title VII unless the employer could show that it would be held liable had it not taken such action. In order to invalidate test results, an employer must have a “strong basis in evidence of an impermissible disparate impact.” The fact that white candidates generally performed better than minority candidates was not enough to invalidate the results. Here, the Court noted that the tests were objective and job-related and were developed to be fair to all racial groups. There was no substantial evidence that the tests, even though white candidates performed better than minority candidates, would have been found illegal. Accordingly, the firefighters� reverse discrimination claims were upheld, and the test results reinstated. Promotional examinations, that are objective and job-related, can not be overturned simply because one racial group performs better than another on those examinations.