Appellate Court mandates further scrutiny of discrimination remedies for African-American and Hispanic school custodians in New York

(New York, NY) Yesterday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit issued an order requiring a federal trial court to further review an agreement that settled an employment discrimination lawsuit against the New York City Board of Education (the Board).  The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) represents ten African-American and Hispanic public school custodians who were adversely affected by the Board’s discrimination and benefited from the settlement agreement.

This lawsuit, United States v. Board of Education, began in 1996, when the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) sued the Board for employment discrimination in recruiting and selecting school custodians.  African Americans, Hispanics, Asian Americans, and women were disproportionately excluded by the Board’s hiring process for permanent positions.  As a result, most could only obtain provisional employment.  Provisional custodians do the same work as permanent custodians and are similarly qualified, but they lack many of the job benefits that permanent custodians enjoy.  For instance, they can be fired at any time and have no ability to obtain transfers and promotions.  

In 1999, during President Clinton’s Administration, DOJ entered into a settlement with the Board, which agreed to give permanent positions with retroactive seniority to those minority and female provisional custodians affected by the discriminatory hiring practices.  After a group of white male custodians challenged the lawfulness of the settlement, DOJ proposed revisions, during President George W. Bush’s Administration, that would have dramatically limited the remedies it previously negotiated.  LDF intervened at the request of African-American and Hispanic custodians whose remedies would have been reduced by DOJ’s change in position.

A federal trial court upheld most of the relief awarded to LDF’s custodian clients under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.  In yesterday’s ruling, the Court of Appeals sent the case back to the trial court and directed it to apply the Supreme Court’s 2009 decision in Ricci v. DeStefano to determine the lawfulness of the settlement.  In Ricci, a narrow majority of the Supreme Court created a new legal standard that places additional hurdles in front of employers seeking to fulfill their obligations under this nation’s core antidiscrimination law.  

“We are disappointed that the Court of Appeals did not see fit to bring this long-running dispute to an end,” said John Payton, LDF President and Director-Counsel.  “Nevertheless, we are confident that the trial court will ultimately uphold the discrimination remedies for African-American and Hispanic employees who were unfairly denied key job benefits.”