Lewis v. City of Chicago: “The Chicago Firefighters Case”

Date Filed: 05/21/1997

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In 1995, Chicago administered an entry-level firefighter exam to more than 26,000 applicants.  The passing score was 65 out of 100, but against the advice of its own expert the City arbitrarily divided those who passed into two groups: applicants who scored between 65 and 88, and applicants who scored 89 and above.  On eleven separate occasions from 1996 to 2002, the City hired firefighters—more than 1,000 in total—using the 89 cut-off score. As a federal district court would later find, the 89 cut-off score was a “statistically meaningless bench-mark” that provided no useful information regarding the relative abilities of the test passers nor had any bearing on job performance.

LDF and co-counsel filed suit on behalf of approximately 6,000 African- Americans who were not hired by the City between 1996 and 2002 because they scored below the 89 cut-off score.  The City conceded that the 89 cut-off score disproportionately excluded African-American applicants, but defended its hiring practice as job-related.  In 2004, the district court held that Chicago violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964—our nation’s core safeguard against discrimination in the workplace.

The City did not appeal this ruling.  Instead, it tried to escape liability for its illegal hiring practice by arguing that the plaintiffs did not file their claims within 300 days after the City first announced its hiring plan, in effect invalidating their claims.  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit sided with the City.  The case then went to the Supreme Court where John Payton, LDF’s Director-Counsel argued the case before the Court in February 2010 on behalf of the firefighter applicants.  In the Supreme Court, the only question was whether or not the plaintiffs filed their claims of discrimination within the timeframe required by Title VII. 

listen to the oral argument

LDF litigated the case with co-counsel that included the Chicago Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights, three Chicago law firms (Miner, Barnhill & Galland, P.C., Robinson, Curley & Clayton, P.C., and Hughes, Socol, Piers, Resnick & Dym, Ltd.), and two solo practioners who are also former LDF staff attorneys Bridget Arimond and Patrick Patterson (now a senior counsel to the chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission).