WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court signaled yesterday that it may be willing to let a group of African-Americans sue Chicago for discrimination over a hiring test that weeded out black applicants to become firefighters.
It is the second time in as many years the high court has tackled discrimination in testing within the firefighting ranks. In a landmark case last year, the Supreme Court in a 5-to-4 decision said New Haven violated white firefighters’ civil rights by throwing out an exam in which no African-Americans scored high enough to be promoted to lieutenant or captain.
In yesterday’s case, the City of Chicago decided to use a test to weed out potential firefighter trainee applicants. Anyone who scored 64 or below was deemed not qualified. But the city set a second cutoff score of 89 points.
Officials told applicants who scored below 89 but above 64 that although they passed the test, they probably would not be hired because of the large number of people who scored 89 or above. The majority of those in the top-scoring group were white; only 11 percent were black.
“Chicago used an unlawful cutoff score to determine which applicants it would hire as firefighters,’’ said John Payton, the director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “There is no dispute that the cutoff score had an adverse impact on qualified black applicants and was not job-related.’’
However, the issue before the court was whether the aspiring black firefighters waited too long to sue. People are supposed to sue within 300 days after an employment action they seek to challenge as unlawful.
The city says the clock started when it disclosed the use of the test scores on Jan. 26, 1996. The first lawsuit in the case was filed on March 31, 1997, 430 days after the city disclosed the results.
But the plaintiffs say a new act of bias also happened each time the scores were used in hiring firefighter trainees between May 1996 and October 2001. A US district court judge agreed with the applicants, but the Seventh US Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that decision.