In a case that harkened back to recent decisions involving employment discrimination, the Supreme Court heard arguments on February 22, 2010, in the case of Lewis v. City of Chicago, Docket No. 08-974. Because the case involved allegations of the discriminatory impact of a firefighter entrance examination, court observers recalled the facts of last year’s case of Ricci v. DeStefano, 557 U.S. ___ (2009). In Ricci, the Supreme Court held that the city of New Haven’s decision to invalidate firefighter promotion test results violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. However, in spite of factual similarities to Ricci, the Lewis case actually resembled the procedural question addressed by the Supreme Court in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., 550 U.S. 618 (2007) and the subsequent legislation reversing the Court—the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009.
In July 1995, applicants received results of a firefighter entry-level exam administered by the city of Chicago. African Americans constituted 37% of exam takers. According to exam results, 45% of African American candidates achieved a “Qualified” grade, and 11.5% of African American candidates received a “Well Qualified” grade. On January 26, 1996, Chicago announced its plan to hire applicants who achieved a “Well Qualified” grade, thus potentially excluding 89.5% of African American candidates.
On October 1, 1996, Chicago followed through on its plan and only hired candidates who received a “Well Qualified” grade from the 1995 exam. On March 31, 1997, Arthur Lewis, an applicant who received a “Qualified” grade, filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC alleging that Chicago discriminated against African Americans on the basis of race when failed to hire them on October 1, 1996.
Under Title VII, depending on the jurisdiction where employees work, claimants must file a charge of discrimination either 180 or 300 days after a discriminatory event. For the Lewis case, claimants needed to follow the 300-day deadline. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit agreed with the city of Chicago and deemed January 26, 1996, as the discriminatory event. Therefore, because Mr. Lewis filed an EEOC charge on March 31, 1997, 431 days after January 26, 1996, the Seventh Circuit dismissed the firefighters’ case. Mr. Lewis and the firefighters appealed to the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court heard the case to resolve which discriminatory event triggered the 300-day deadline to file a charge:
• On January 26, 1996, when Chicago announced its plan to hire only “Well Qualified” candidates (431 days before Mr. Lewis filed his charge)
• On October 1, 1996, when Chicago actually hired the “Well Qualified” candidates (181 days before Mr. Lewis filed his charge).
Based upon reports of the oral argument in Lewis, observers believed that the Supreme Court would support African American firefighters’ argument that a discriminatory event occurred when Chicago actually made hiring decisions on October 1, 1996.
Although the Court will not issue a decision until later this year, employees who believe they have been subjected to discrimination can avoid procedural problems by being aware of the 180- or 300-day deadline to contact the U.S. EEOC or their local Fair Employment Practice office. It is important to hire an attorney with experience in civil rights enforcement as early as possible in order to prepare the necessary materials for submission the EEOC. If you miss the initial filing deadline, regardless of the merits of your case, it may be subject to dismissal.