Supreme Court Rules in Favor of White Firefighters in Ricci Decision

The Supreme Court has ruled in Ricci v. DeStefano that white firefighters in New Haven, Conn., were unfairly denied promotions because of their race.  In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court holds that throwing out the district's test results based on the racial distribution of scores is disparate treatment and that fear of a disparate impact lawsuit is not a valid defense to it under Title VII.

The case has received a great deal of media attention because one of the appellate judges decided the case at the appellate level was Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor.  However, in my first reading of the opinion I noted that the Court gave almost no discussion to the court of appeals' ruling.

The Ricci opinion joins an increasing number of 5-4 decisions coming from the Court.  Because of the current makeup of the Court, it really has all come down to what does Justice Kennedy think in most cases.  Here, Kennedy delivered the majority opinion of the Court. Justice Scalia filed a concurring opinion. Justice Alito filed a concurring opinion, in which Justice Scalia and Justice Thomas joined. Justice Ginsburg filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justices Stevens, Souter, and Breyer joined.

Here is a link to the full text of the opinion

Here is the full text of the Court's syllabus summary of the opinion:

New Haven, Conn. (City), uses objective examinations to identify those firefighters best qualified for promotion. When the results of such an exam to fill vacant lieutenant and captain positions showed that white candidates had outperformed minority candidates, a rancorous public debate ensued. Confronted with arguments both for and against certifying the test results—and threats of a lawsuit either way—the City threw out the results based on the statistical racial disparity. Petitioners, white and Hispanic firefighters who passed the exams but were denied a chance at promotions by the City’s refusal to certify the test results, sued the City and respondent officials,alleging that discarding the test results discriminated against them based on their race in violation of, inter alia, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The defendants responded that had they certified the test results, they could have faced Title VII liability for adopting a practice having a disparate impact on minority firefighters. The District Court granted summary judgment for the defendants, and the Second Circuit affirmed.
Held: The City’s action in discarding the tests violated Title VII. Pp. 16–34.

     (a) Title VII prohibits intentional acts of employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin, 42 U. S. C. §2000e–2(a)(1) (disparate treatment), as well as policies or practices that are not intended to discriminate but in fact have a disproportionately adverse effect on minorities, §2000e–2(k)(1)(A)(i) (disparate impact). Once a plaintiff has established a prima facie case of disparate impact, the employer may defend by demonstrating that its policy or practice is “job related for the position in question and consistent with business necessity.” Ibid. If the employer meets that burden, the plaintiff may still succeed by showing that the employer refuses to adopt an available alternative practice that has less disparate impact and serves the employer’s legitimate needs. §§2000e–2(k)(1)(A)(ii) and (C). Pp. 17–19.

      (b)  Under Title VII, before an employer can engage in intentional discrimination for the asserted purpose of avoiding or remedying an unintentional, disparate impact, the employer must have a strong basis in evidence to believe it will be subject to disparate-impact li-ability if it fails to take the race-conscious, discriminatory action. The Court’s analysis begins with the premise that the City’s actions would violate Title VII’s disparate-treatment prohibition absent some valid defense. All the evidence demonstrates that the City rejected the test results because the higher scoring candidates were white.Without some other justification, this express, race-based decision-making is prohibited. The question, therefore, is whether the purpose to avoid disparate-impact liability excuses what otherwise would be prohibited disparate-treatment discrimination. The Court has considered cases similar to the present litigation, but in the context of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. Such cases can provide helpful guidance in this statutory context. See Watson v. Fort Worth Bank & Trust, 487 U. S. 977, 993. In those cases, the Court held that certain government actions to remedy past racial discrimination actions that are themselves based on race—are constitutional only where there is a “strong basis in evidence” that the re-medial actions were necessary. Richmond v. J. A. Croson Co., 488
U. S. 469, 500; see also Wygant v. Jackson Bd. of Ed., 476 U. S. 267,
277. In announcing the strong-basis-in-evidence standard, the Wygant plurality recognized the tension between eliminating segregation and discrimination on the one hand and doing away with all governmentally imposed discrimination based on race on the other. 476 U. S., at 277. It reasoned that “[e]videntiary support for the conclusion that remedial action is warranted becomes crucial when the re-medial program is challenged in court by nonminority employees.” Ibid. The same interests are at work in the interplay between Title VII’s disparate-treatment and disparate-impact provisions. Applying the strong-basis-in-evidence standard to Title VII gives effect to both provisions, allowing violations of one in the name of compliance with the other only in certain, narrow circumstances. It also allows the disparate-impact prohibition to work in a manner that is consistent with other Title VII provisions, including the prohibition on adjusting employment-related test scores based on race, see §2000e–2(l), and the section that expressly protects bona fide promotional exams, see §2000e–2(h). Thus, the Court adopts the strong-basis-in-evidence standard as a matter of statutory construction in order to resolve any conflict between Title VII’s disparate-treatment and disparate-impact provisions. Pp. 19–26.

     (c) The City’s race-based rejection of the test results cannot satisfy the strong-basis-in-evidence standard. Pp. 26–34.                                                                                        

     (i) The racial adverse impact in this litigation was significant, and petitioners do not dispute that the City was faced with a prima facie case of disparate-impact liability. The problem for respondents is that such a prima facie case—essentially, a threshold showing of a significant statistical disparity, Connecticut v. Teal, 457 U. S. 440, 446, and nothing more—is far from a strong basis in evidence that the City would have been liable under Title VII had it certified the test results. That is because the City could be liable for disparate-impact discrimination only if the exams at issue were not job related and consistent with business necessity, or if there existed an equally valid, less discriminatory alternative that served the City’s needs but that the City refused to adopt. §§2000e–2(k)(1)(A), (C). Based on the record the parties developed through discovery, there is no substantial basis in evidence that the test was deficient in either respect. Pp. 26–28.

     (ii) The City’s assertions that the exams at issue were not job related and consistent with business necessity are blatantly contradicted by the record, which demonstrates the detailed steps taken to develop and administer the tests and the painstaking analysis of the questions asked to assure their relevance to the captain and lieutenant positions. The testimony also shows that complaints that certain examination questions were contradictory or did not specifically apply to firefighting practices in the City were fully addressed, and that the City turned a blind eye to evidence supporting the exams’ valid-ity. Pp. 28–29.

     (iii) Respondents also lack a strong basis in evidence showing an equally valid, less discriminatory testing alternative that the City, bycertifying the test results, would necessarily have refused to adopt.Respondents’ three arguments to the contrary all fail. First, respon-dents refer to testimony that a different composite-score calculationwould have allowed the City to consider black candidates for then-open positions, but they have produced no evidence to show that thecandidate weighting actually used was indeed arbitrary, or that thedifferent weighting would be an equally valid way to determinewhether candidates are qualified for promotions. Second, respon-dents argue that the City could have adopted a different interpreta-tion of its charter provision limiting promotions to the highest scoring applicants, and that the interpretation would have produced less dis-criminatory results; but respondents’ approach would have violated Title VII’s prohibition of race-based adjustment of test results,§2000e–2(l). Third, testimony asserting that the use of an assess-ment center to evaluate candidates’ behavior in typical job tasks would have had less adverse impact than written exams does not aidrespondents, as it is contradicted by other statements in the recordindicating that the City could not have used assessment centers for the exams at issue. Especially when it is noted that the strong-basis-in-evidence standard applies to this case, respondents cannot create a genuine issue of fact based on a few stray (and contradictory) state-ments in the record. Pp. 29–33.

     (iv) Fear of litigation alone cannot justify the City’s reliance on race to the detriment of individuals who passed the examinations andqualified for promotions. Discarding the test results was impermis-sible under Title VII, and summary judgment is appropriate for peti-tioners on their disparate-treatment claim. If, after it certifies the test results, the City faces a disparate-impact suit, then in light of today’s holding the City can avoid disparate-impact liability based onthe strong basis in evidence that, had it not certified the results, it would have been subject to disparate-treatment liability. Pp. 33–34.
530 F. 3d 87, reversed and remanded.