Welcome to the National Campaign to Restore Civil Rights Interview Series, a regular examination of the court cases that shape and affect our lives.
In the coming weeks, the Supreme Court will be ruling on another case involving claims of race discrimination in the hiring of firefighters. In Lewis v. City of Chicago, 6000 African American firefighters sued the Illinois city over discriminatory hiring practices which the local government now admits were unlawful. The question that is under consideration in the Supreme Court however, is whether or not the firefighters waited too long to sue the city government. The issues involved in this case recall an earlier dilemma in a lawsuit known as Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. Both cases address whether discrimination claims can be dismissed on a technicality about whether or not the workers filed their claims in time. While Lilly Ledbetter eventually lost her gender discrimination case in the Supreme Court, Congress stepped in last year and rectified the Court’s damaging decision with the enactment of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. This law reinforced the principle that technicalities and legal procedures should not allow clear examples of employment discrimination to fall through the cracks.
To learn more about the Lewis v. City of Chicago case, we spoke with Josh Civin, associate Counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
PERRY: What is the Lewis v. City of Chicago case about?
CIVIN: Just as with the Lilly Ledbetter case, this case involves the issue of whether discrimination should be allowed to persist because of a technicality about whether workers file their claims on time. From 1996 through 2002, the Chicago fire department used the hiring procedures that had now been conceived racially discriminatory to fill entry level posts in their fire department. The city administered a test to determine which applicants were fully qualified and then used a cutoff score to divide the fully qualified applicants into two groups; one group was disproportionately white and one group was disproportionately black, and the city hired from the disproportionately white group. The cutoff score and the eligibility list created from that cutoff score didn’t predict jobs on performance and caused a significant disparate impact and under Title VII which is our principal Anti-Discrimination law, a practice that has a racially discriminatory impact and is not job related is unlawful. Tried in the district court and the city lost and it did an appeal. The only issue before the Supreme Court is the issue of whether the plaintiff who are 6000 African American applicants who were denied the opportunity to compete for firefighter jobs as a result of their discriminatory cutoff scores, whether the plaintiffs filed their claims on time. The City of Chicago claims that they didn’t and the plaintiffs argued that they did, and the city argued that the claims weren’t timely because the only active discrimination was the creation of an eligibility list of the cutoff score and our ire is the cutoff score and resulting eligibility list was used to hire, that was an active discrimination and the city should not be able to avoid liability for each of those acts, which I know there were 11 of those acts based on when those acts occurred. The Seven Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the City of Chicago and the Supreme Court granted certiorari to repeal this.
PERRY: Why does this 300 day rule exist?
CIVIN: The 300 day rule is the statute of limitation for a Title VII claim, you have to file your claim within 300 days of when the unlawful act occurred. The City of Chicago again says that the only unlawful act was the creation of the eligibility list and the argue is that each of the 11 times that the city used this discriminatory cutoff score to hire firefighters more than a 1000 in total over a period of six years, each of those acts was discriminatory and the key here is that if you don’t file within 300 days of a discriminatory act, then you can’t bring suit and get redress for discrimination.
PERRY: There was a hearing in this case in the Supreme Court last month. What came out of that hearing?
CIVIN: John Payton who is the Director Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and my boss, argued on the behalf of the 6000 plaintiffs and he made a forceful and compelling argument, we think, that an employer should be held accountable each and every time that employer uses a discriminatory practice that arbitrally blocks qualified minority applicants from employment. The Justices asked tough questions as they tend to do, but we are cautiously optimistic that they took our arguments very carefully under consideration and were concerned about the policy implications and also about how the statute should work, making sure that the statute Title VII which is our primary anti-discrimination law is used in every best way to defend against discrimination.
PERRY: What are the broader implications of this case, in addition to the outcome for the firefighters in Chicago?
CIVIN: This case, we are cautiously optimistic about but it’s a very tough case and we think the outcome will have far reaching consequences from employment discrimination cases around the country because it will determine whether many workers who experience employment discrimination will have their day in court, whether their claim to discrimination will instead be time barred and so victims of discrimination will be denied justice based on procedural technicalities.
PERRY: That was Josh Civin, Associate Counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
The National Campaign to Restore Civil Rights is a collection of more than 100 civil rights organizations and numerous individuals who came together to ensure that the courts protect and preserve justice, fairness and opportunity for everyone. The campaign focuses on public education and outreach finding ways to get the message out about the impact of court rulings on our communities, our opportunities and our rights.