The city of Chicago says it’s ready to hire firefighters in a long-running discrimination case if it’s ordered to do so now that the U.S. Supreme Court has found a group of black applicants didn’t wait too long to sue.
The Supreme Court’s decision sent the case back to a lower court. Mara Georges, the city of Chicago’s corporation counsel, said the city plans to hire the would-be firefighters if the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago determines it should. City officials say about 111 recruits could be employed.
“We stand ready and willing to do so, but we need some ruling from the 7th Circuit first,” Georges said.
The city estimates damages and pension obligations in the case could be as high as $45 million.
The court action is the latest in a case spanning 15 years and challenging a 1995 test that was used to cull applicants who hoped to one day become firefighters. It’s also the latest episode in a department with a history of acrimony over racial issues in hiring.
In 2001, a group of white firefighters lost a Supreme Court appeal that challenged an affirmative action plan to promote minorities in the department. In the 1970s, the federal government sued the city alleging the department discriminated against blacks and Hispanics.
In this latest case, officials told applicants who scored below 89 but above 64 on a 1995 test that they had passed but likely wouldn’t be hired as firefighters because a large number of test-takers had scored 89 or above. The majority of those in the top-scoring group were white; only 11 percent were black.
The city’s firefighter applicant test is now pass/fail, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley said.
“For decades we have tried to diversify the Chicago Fire Department,” Daley said. “But at every turn, like most cities, we have been met with legal challenges from both sides. Still, this administration remains committed to ensuring that the department more reflects the racial makeup of the city.”
In a landmark case last year, the Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision said New Haven, Conn., violated white firefighters’ civil rights, throwing out an exam in which no African-Americans scored high enough to be promoted to lieutenant or captain.
People are supposed to sue within 300 days in an employment action, and Chicago claimed that clock started ticking when it announced how the test scores would be used in January 1996. The first lawsuit wasn’t filed until 430 days after the test results were announced.
The plaintiffs argued there was a new act of discrimination whenever the scores were used in hiring firefighter trainees between May 1996 and October 2001.
“Today, the Supreme Court affirmed that jobseekers should not be denied justice based on a technicality,” said John Payton, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc., who argued the case. “This victory goes well beyond the immediate results in Chicago. It should ensure that no other fire department or employer uses a discriminatory test, and LDF will go the extra mile to make sure that they do not.”
A U.S. District judge had agreed with the plaintiffs and ordered the city to hire 132 randomly selected black applicants who scored above 64. The court also ordered the city to count up the back pay and divide it among the rest of the applicants. But the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that decision.
City officials say they would have to hire about 111 applicants because a statute of limitations means one pool of applicants is no longer included. The city also has since hired others who were originally told they wouldn’t get the chance to be firefighters.
Georges also said an age restriction won’t be in place for those who might be hired because there wasn’t one when the test was administered. Georges said applicants, who may now be in their 40s, would still have to attend the fire academy.
Associated Press Writer Jesse Holland in Washington contributed to this report.
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