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Victory from District Court in Lewis v. Chicago Firefighter Case

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Friday, February 14, 2014

Chicago Firefighters

Yesterday, the District Court issued an important ruling on what is hopefully the last disputed substantive issue in Lewis v. Chicago – LDF’s long-running challenge to employment discrimination in the Chicago’s Fire Department.  Ten years ago, the District Court found that Chicago’s discriminatory administration of an entry-level firefighter exam in 1995 unfairly denied our plaintiff class of fully qualified African-American firefighter applicants the opportunity to work for the City’s Fire Department.  Four years ago, this case went to the Supreme Court, where brilliant oral advocacy by the late John Payton, LDF’s former Director-Counsel, resulted in a unanimous ruling  in favor of the plaintiff class.  Thereafter, LDF has worked hard to secure a robust remedy for our clients, through numerous district court filings and hearings, two additional decisions by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, and extensive outreach to, and responses to inquiries from, class members. 

As part of the remedy, 104 of our class members are now serving as Chicago firefighters.  At stake in yesterday’s ruling is whether those firefighters are entitled to two “service bars” on their dress uniforms, worn on formal occasions.  Rejecting the City’s arguments, the District Court concluded that firefighters hired as a result of this lawsuit should be awarded the dress bars because members of the class would have been received them had they been hired at the point when they should have been years ago, but for the City’s unlawful hiring procedures.

The District Court’s decision vindicates the broad mandate of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to provide “make-whole relief” that restores individuals to the positions they would have obtained but for the employer’s unlawful discrimination.  Astutely recognizing the lived experience of discrimination in the real world, District Court Judge Gottschall concluded that make-whole relief extends beyond recovery for economic injuries caused by discrimination:

“When firefighters hired pursuant to this court’s judgment wear their dress uniforms, the absence of service bars reminds them—and reminds all other witnesses—of the City’s discrimination against them. When they appear at public ceremonies, their uniforms signify that they are less equal than their peers. These harms are no less serious than any economic injury the plaintiffs have suffered.”

LDF’s co-counsel Joshua Karsh from the Chicago law firm of Hughes, Socol, Piers, Resnick & Dym, Ltd., successfully argued this issue before the District Court.  In addition to the hiring remedy, the District Court’s injunction has resulted in the distribution of more than $50 million in back-pay remedial awards to class members who were not hired. 

At the class members’ graduation from the Chicago Fire Academy in November, 2012, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel gave a moving speech, in which he was quite candid about the City’s need to overcome its past history of injustice.  “Dreams are deferred but never defeated,” Mayor Emanuel stated.  “After two decades we are correcting that mistake, and it is my hope that we never, ever make that mistake again. The Chicago Fire Department should be as diverse as the city it defends.”  A link to a Chicago Sun Times article on the graduation is available here.