Ricci v. DeStefano

Table of Contents


Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits action that intentionally discriminates based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin in employment decisions (disparate treatment). It also prohibits actions that are not intended to discriminate, but result in a disproportionately adverse impact on minorities in employment decisions (disparate impact). In situations where an employment practice or policy has a disparate impact on minorities, an employer must show that the policy or practice is related to the position and is necessary for the operation of the business. The plaintiff can still succeed if he shows that an alternate practice exists that meets the employer’s needs and reduces the disparate impact and that the employer refuses to adopt it. In this case, the city of New Haven, Connecticut used objective examinations in its promotion process within the fire department. The exams were 60 percent written and 40 percent oral. One such exam was administered to fill lieutenant and captain positions. The white candidates significantly outperformed minority candidates and caused a public outcry. The city, faced with threats of lawsuit from both sides of the issue, refused to certify the results of the test. White and Hispanic firefighters who had passed the exams but were not promoted when the results were thrown out brought suit alleging that the city’s actions discriminated against them based on their race in violation of Title VII. The defendants argued that certifying the results would have led to Title VII liability for putting in place a practice that led to a disparate impact on minority firefighters. The district court granted summary judgment for the defendants and the court of appeals affirmed. The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari.


1) Can a municipality reject results from an otherwise valid civil service exam when the results unintentionally prevent the promotion of minority candidates? 2) Does 42 U.S.C. Section 2000e permit federal courts to relieve municipalities from having to comply with local laws that require strict compliance with race-blind merit selection procedures?


Maybe, fact dependent. Not answered. The Supreme Court held that by discarding the exams, the City of New Haven violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote the majority joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts, and Justices Antonin G. Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel A. Alito. Before an employer can engage in intentional discrimination for the purpose of avoiding a disparate impact” on a protected trait (race, color, religion, national origin), the employer must have a “strong basis in evidence” that it will be subject to “disparate impact liability” if it fails to take the discriminatory action. Here, the Court reasoned that New Haven failed to prove it had a “strong basis in evidence” that failing to discard the results of the exam would have subjected it to liability, as the exams were job-related, consistent with business necessity, and there was no evidence that an equally-valid, less-discriminatory alternative was available. Justice Scalia wrote separately, concurring. He noted that the Court avoided answering whether the “disparate impact” provision of Title VII was consistent with the Equal Protection Clause. Justice Alito also wrote a concurring opinion and was joined by Justices Scalia and Thomas. He criticized the dissent for omitting key information in reaching its alternate conclusion. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented and was joined by Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, and Stephen G. Breyer. She argued that the City of New Haven had good cause to believe it would be vulnerable to a Title VII lawsuit if it certified the exams. Moreover, she criticized the majority for ignoring “substantial flaws” in the exam.

Gregory S. Coleman argued the cause for the petitioners
Edwin S. Kneedler Deputy Solicitor General, Department of Justice, argued the cause for the United States as amicus curiae, Christopher J. Meade argued the cause for the respondent
John DiStefano et al.
Frank Ricci et al.
Roberts Court
557 US _ (2009)
Jan 9, 2009
Apr 22, 2009
Jun 29, 2009