LEWIS v. CHICAGO (May 13, 2011)

In 1995, applicants for Chicago's Fire Department took a written examination. The City divided the applicants into three categories, based on their test scores. Applicants scoring 64 or less were rated not qualified. Applicants scoring 89 or more were rated highly qualified. The middle group was rated qualified but told in January of 1996 that they were not likely to be hired. The City hired applicants on 11 different occasions between May 1996 and November 2001. Each time, it chose at random from the well-qualified pool. An applicant in the qualified pool filed a charge of discrimination in March of 1997. The charge claimed that the 89 cut-off had a disparate impact on African-Americans. Several applicants later filed a class-action. Judge Gottschall (N.D. Ill.) concluded that the charge was timely, notwithstanding the fact that it was filed more than 300 days after qualified applicants were told that they were not likely to be hired. She also rejected the City's business necessity defense and awarded relief to the class. On appeal, the Seventh Circuit reversed, concluding that the charge was not timely. The Supreme Court reversed the Seventh Circuit, concluding that the 300-day clock starts anew in disparate impact litigation whenever the employer makes a hiring decision based on the challenged test. The Supreme Court's decision made the charge timely with respect to each hiring event except the first. The Supreme Court remanded for consideration of: a) whether the City preserved an argument that the charge was untimely with respect to the first hiring event, and b) whether the City preserved an argument that the plaintiffs failed to prove disparate impact arising from any particular use of the test.

In their opinion, Chief Judge Easterbrook and Judges Power and Posner affirmed the original district court opinion as modified to eliminate any relief based on the first hiring event. The Court first concluded that the City preserved both arguments identified by the Supreme Court. Since the City preserved its argument that the charge was untimely with respect to the first hiring event, and since the Supreme Court concluded that it was untimely, the Court reversed the District Court with respect to any relief arising from that event. Although the Court concluded that the City preserved its argument that the plaintiffs failed to prove any particular disparate impact, the Court rejected the argument on its merits. First, the City had conceded that the 89 cut-off had a disparate impact. Because each hiring event was a random selection from the well-qualified pool, each event resulted in the same disparate impact as the list as a whole. The Court rejected the City's argument that since it could treat the original creation of the pool as legal (because of the delayed charge), then each use of the pool was legal. In a disparate impact case, which does not require evidence of discriminatory intent during the charging period, the use of the test can be unlawful even if the original creation of the highly qualified pool was not.