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Black Firefighter Applicants Allege Racial Bias, Case Goes to Supreme Court

By Anthonia Akitunde in News on Feb 21, 2010 8:00PM

It's a familiar story: after taking an entry-level test, would-be firefighters claim racial discrimination kept them from getting a job and take their case to the highest court in the land. But unlike last year's New Haven, Conn. case where white firefighters were the plaintiffs, this year more than 6,000 blacks from Chicago are making the same claim, the Tribune reports.

The $100 million civil rights case will be heard by the Supreme Court, but the decision may hinge on whether or not their lawyers waited "a few months too long to file their suit," the report said. The results of the case may affect the nation, as most state and local agencies are required to determine hiring through competitive tests.

Last year, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of New Haven's white firefighters. In that case, the applicants said they experienced racial discrimination when promotion test scores were dismissed by the city. The firefighters scored high marks on the test and would have gotten promotions, the report said. City officials tossed the scores because they were afraid of being sued by blacks who did not get promotions.This case became the center of controversy when, as a lower court judge, Justice Sonia Sotomayor ruled against the firefighters. During her confirmation hearings, Republicans grilled her on whether or not being a "wise Latina" influenced her decision in that case and others.

Although the claims of racial discrimination are the same, the details are very different. According to the report, the black applicants were among 26,000 people who took an entry-level test for Fire Department Jobs in the United Center stadium in 1995. Applicants who scored 89 or above earned a "well-qualified" rank and -- if they passed their physical and medical exams -- were the most likely to be hired by the department over the next eight years, the report said. Those with scores between 65 and 88 were considered "qualified," and told they probably would not be hired.

An overwhelming majority (76 percent) of those considered well-qualified were white; only 11.5 percent were black. In 1997 the "qualified" black applicants sued, alleging racial discrimination. Their claims were founded on the Civil Rights Act, which states, "job standards, including tests, are illegal if they unfairly screen out applicants because of their race or gender," according to the report. Employers must prove the tests were a "business necessity."

U.S. District Judge Joan Gottschall ruled in favor of the black applicants, stating the cut off score of 89 was "statistically meaningless." The city's lawyers appealed, saying the applicants waited too long (missing the 300-day deadline for job discrimination claims); the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed and threw out the case, the report said. The applicants sued more than a year later and last year, the National Association of Colored People's Defense Fund appealed to the Supreme Court, the Tribune reported.