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

Date Filed: 05/21/1997

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. 36% of those who scored between 65-88 were Black. After the qualifying score was raised to 89, whites comprised 77% of the applicant pool while Black applicants comprised just 9%. On eleven separate occasions from 1996 to 2002, the City hired more than 1,000 firefighters using the 89 cut-off score that unjustifiably excluded Black applicants. Although the City knew this from the outset, it used the test results for the next six years to hire eleven disproportionately white firefighter classes. 

LDF and co-counsel filed suit on behalf of approximately 6,000 Black applicants 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 Black applicants 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 federal district court found that 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.

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 question raised was whether or not the plaintiffs filed their claims of discrimination within the timeframe required by Title VII. The Supreme Court held that each and every time the City used its discriminatory hiring practice to select a new class of firefighters, it violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. 

The Court of Appeals confirmed that the Black applicants were entitled to a remedy for each of the City’s uses of its unlawful hiring practice, except the very first set of firefighter hires.  Significantly, the Court of Appeals based its decision on Griggs v. Duke Power, another landmark LDF victory before a unanimous Supreme Court.  That 1971 decision embraced a powerful legal tool – now known as the “disparate impact” framework – that has proved essential in Lewis v. Chicago and other efforts to eradicate arbitrary and artificial barriers to equal employment opportunity for all individuals, regardless of their race.

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).