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Ruling determines that fire department must hire for firefighting jobs in Chicago

Posted on May 14, 2011

A ruling this week in the court of appeals has determined that the Chicago Fire Department must hire African-Americans for firefighting jobs in Chicago.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled in favor of a class of over 6,000 qualified African-American firefighter applicants who were unfairly denied the opportunity to work for the Chicago Fire Department. Last Spring, after over a decade of litigation, the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) and co-counsel won a unanimous victory for the African-American firefighter applicants in the Supreme Court. The Court of Appeals’ decision today, also unanimous, decisively rejected Chicago’s attempt to evade that Supreme Court ruling.

“After many years fighting for justice, our African-American clients will finally have a fair chance to serve their City,” said John Payton, LDF’s Director-Counsel who argued the case in the Supreme Court. “The only remaining step is speedy implementation of a robust remedy for this long-standing injustice. The City of Chicago will be better for it. And beyond the immediate results in Chicago, this case will help ensure that no other fire department or employer utilizes a discriminatory test to unjustifiably eliminate fully qualified applicants of any race.”

Between 1996 and 2002, Chicago hired more than 1,000 firefighters using the results of a test in a manner that unjustifiably excluded qualified African-American applicants. Although the City knew this from the outset, it used the test results for the next six years to hire eleven disproportionately white firefighter classes. After a federal district court found that the City’s hiring practice was discriminatory, the City did not appeal the finding. Instead, the City tried to escape liability for its illegal hiring practice by arguing that the plaintiffs’ claims were barred because they were not filed within 300 days after the City first announced its hiring plan. Vindicating LDF’s arguments, the Supreme Court held that each and every time the City used its discriminatory hiring practice to select a new class of firefighters, it violated Title of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, our nations’ core federal guarantee of equal employment opportunity.

In its ruling today, the Court of Appeals confirmed that the African-American job applicants are entitled to a remedy for each of the City’s uses of its unlawful hiring practice, except the very first set of firefighter hires. Significantly, the Court of Appeals based its decision on Griggs v. Duke Power, another landmark LDF victory before a unanimous Supreme Court. That 1971 decision embraced a powerful legal tool – now known as the “disparate impact” framework – that has proved essential in Lewis v. Chicago and other efforts to eradicate arbitrary and artificial barriers to equal employment opportunity for all individuals, regardless of their race.

LDF has litigated the case with co-counsel including the Chicago Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Inc., three Chicago law firms (Miner, Barnhill & Galland, P.C., Robinson, Curley & Clayton, P.C., and Hughes, Socol, Piers, Resnick & Dym, Ltd.), and two solo practitioners who are also former LDF staff attorneys: Bridget Arimond and Patrick Patterson (now a senior counsel to the chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission). LDF co-counsel Paul Strauss of the Chicago Lawyers Committee presented oral argument in the Court of Appeals.

Meanwhile, other local organizations continue to serve minorities and find them jobs in Chicago.