In one of the most anticipated employment discrimination cases in years, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the City of New Haven discriminated against non-minority firefighters when it chose to ignore the test results of a racially-neutral promotional exam because too few minorities scored high enough on the test to be considered for promotion.  I previously wrote about this case and outlined its facts.  (See here for post).

In Ricci v. DeStafano, a majority of the Supreme Court began with the premise that the City’s decision to ignore the results of its promotional testing because too few minority fire fighters scored well on the test, constituted intentional discrimination against the firefighters that scored well on the test.  There was no dispute that the City disregarded the test results because of the race of the test takers and the fact that no minorities scored high enough to qualify for promotion.  Concluding that this conduct constituted intentional discrimination, the Court examined whether the City had a legitimate justification for ignoring the test results. 

The City’s sole justification for the ignoring the test results was that if it recognized the results it would face litigation from the minority firefighters who took, and scored poorly, on the test.  The minority firefighters, the City predicted, would sue the City claiming that the racially-neutral test had a disparate impact on minority firefighters and therefore discriminated against them.  The City argued that it was faced with a Hobson’s choice where no matter what it elected to do it would be faced with a discrimination lawsuit (i.e., either being sued by the white firefighters who scored well and were denied promotional opportunities because the test results were ignored or by the minority firefighters who claimed the test unintentionally discriminated against them by recognizing a test that had a disparate impact on minorities).

The Court explained that if the City had a "strong basis in evidence" that its recognition of the test results would subject it to disparate-impact liability in the absence of it taking the race-conscious, discriminatory action –not necessarily that it would lose an disparate impact case.  To make this showing, there would need to be a showing of a significant statistical disparity; and the tests were no job related and consistent with business necessity; or there existed an equally valid, less-discriminatory alternative that served the City’s needs that it refused to adopt.  Applying this standard to the Ricci case, the Court concluded that City lacked a strong basis in evidence that it would be subjected to disparate-impact liability if it recognized the test results.  Therefore, it found that City discriminated against the non-minority firefighters when it threw out the test results.    

The lesson from Ricci is that when an employer is faced with qualification or promotional exam that may have a disparate impact on a protected class, the employer must build a strong record and attempt to ferret out the reasons for the disparity before deciding whether to ignore the results.  A strong case would begin with a test that was designed in such a way as to avoid a disparate impact as was the case in Ricci.  The Court’s opinion makes clear that it is not intended to prohibit an employer from considering (before test administration) a way to design a test that provides a fair opportunity for all individuals, regardless of their race.  Instead, the legal analysis encourages employers (and gives them broad latitude) at the test-design phase to invite comments to ensure the test is fair.  This would tend to help to identify aspects of the prospective test that might not be job-related and consistent with business necessity or other equally effective, less discriminatory alternatives.  

With a strong record in this regard, an employer assert and prevail with the new defense announced by the Ricci court when it faced with the prospect of being sued for disparate treatment (i.e., intentional) or disparate impact (i.e., unintentional) discrimination.