Last week, in Lewis v. City of Chicago, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Chicago Fire Department must hire 111 African-American firefighter candidates who were eliminated in a 1995 application test. The city had chosen to hire only from the top test scorers, the majority of whom were white.
“This is both an economic victory for a group of people who are very interested in [the case], and it is a victory in terms of racial justice that is of particular importance for African-Americans in Chicago,” says Matthew Piers, a civil rights attorney with Hughes Socol Piers Resnick & Dym, who has worked on the case, first as lead trial attorney, then as a member of the appellate team, for more than a decade.
In 2005, a federal trial court agreed with Piers’ argument that the fire department’s decision to hire only candidates who had scored an 89 or higher on the firefighter application exam–78 percent of whom were white–disproportionately excluded African-Americans. Piers argued that the pen-and-paper test could not accurately determine who would be a better firefighter; and because it was discriminatory, it was illegal.
“Employers love these tests … because they think that they remove the difficult and inappropriate subjective issues from employment decisions. Those are commendable motivations, but the problem is, to a very significant percent, standardized tests fail as predictors of success on most complicated jobs and … they almost uniformly have a disparate impact against minorities,” says Piers, a Super Lawyers listee since 2005, whom we profiled last February.
This is the second time the case has been before the 7th Circuit to address these issues. The original case wasn’t filed within the 300-day window allotted for employment discrimination cases, but, in trial court, Piers argued that a new act of discrimination occurred every time the city hired from only that top pool of candidates. The trial court agreed, the 7th Circuit overturned, but last year U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that an act of discrimination does occur with each new hiring and remanded the case back to the 7th Circuit to rule on the initial group of bypassed candidates. Last Friday the court ruled the initial group shouldn’t be included, and damages were reduced.
But the city is required to pay tens of millions of dollars in damages to 6,000 others from the class who can no longer be hired.
Piers is proud of the results and is eager to see the case resolved.
“We have a new mayor and we’re very hopeful that we’re going to have … some cooperation in wrapping up this manner,” he says, “and finally implementing the remedy … and allowing the city and its fire department to move forward to a better future.”