Supreme Court Decision in Ricci Makes It Hard For Employers to Comply with Anti-Discrimination Laws

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court imposed a new standard on employers seeking to comply with federal employment discrimination laws in its 5-4 decision in Ricci v. DeStefano, a race discrimination lawsuit against the city of New Haven, Connecticut.

Ricci involved the claim by one Latino and nine White firefighters that the city’s decision not to certify the results of a firefighter promotion test discriminated against them.  After the test was administered, the city had found that it had a discriminatory effect. The city concluded the test was biased and, after extensive consideration and five public hearings, chose to abandon the discriminatory exam, in order to avoid facing a discrimination lawsuit.  Two lower courts agreed that the city made the correct decision.

However, the Supreme Court ruled, in an opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy,  that the city violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employers from discriminating on the basis of race, religion, gender, and national origin, by not certifying the test.  In doing so, the Court created a new standard that gives employers very little room to rectify situations where a policy is found to have a discriminatory effect after the policy has been applied.

“[E]mployers will now face a convoluted minefield when attempting to protect workers from discrimination, said Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.  “The Court’s decision is clearly contrary to Congress’ intent in passing Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  It leaves employers in a quandary, and gives them a disincentive to voluntarily ensure a fair workplace.”

In her dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg referenced the history of discrimination in fire departments around the country and in New Haven, as well as current disparities in fire departments. She stated that the Court’s decision forces New Haven to be served by a “fire department in which members of racial and ethnic minorities are rarely seen in command positions.”

Ginsburg said that restricting what employers can do after a policy is found to be discriminatory runs counter to the intent of Title VII, citing previous Supreme Court decisions.  She said that by straying so far from precedent,  the decision “will not have staying power.”

Read the full opinion. (PDF)