Supreme Court: Fear of Disparate Impact Litigation Does Not Justify Disparate Treatment

Ricci v. DeStefano may be the most eagerly anticipated decision this Term. But that doesn't have anything to do with the case itself. It's because the opinion under review was written by Sonia Sotomayor, nominated for a seat on the High Court. he Sotomayor fans / foes did not get a decisive victory from the Supremes.

The Court decided that New Haven, Connecticut violated Title VII by throwing out a firefighter's promotion examination on the ground that White firefighters passed the test far more frequently than Black firefighters. The city feared a disparate impact lawsuit from unsuccessful minority applicants because the test results were skewed along racial lines. The Second Circuit had upheld the city's action.

The Supreme Court (5-4) held that refusing to certify the test on the basis of the successful examinees' race constituted disparate treatment discrimination under Title VII. The Court then considered whether avoiding disparate impact litigation was a valid defense. Mere fear of a lawsuit is not sufficient. Rather, to justify the action, the city would have to have a "strong basis in evidence" that "the test was deficient and that discarding the results is necessary to avoid violating the disparate-impact provision."

The Court also addressed the probability that the Black firefighters would sue for disparate impact discrimination. The Court noted that the test appeared to be "job-related and consistent with business necessity," a defense to the claim. In addition, the Court suggested that its decision would insulate the city from liability because throwing the test results out would constitute disparate treatment.

Justice Scalia concurred to point out there is tension between disparate impact claims under Title VII and equal protection law, the resolution of which would have to wait for a later date. Justice Alito also concurred with the majority opinion. He pointed out that the city's decision not to certify the test results may have had more to do with "racial politics" - pressure from activists - than a fear of disparate impact litigation.

Justice Ginsburg's dissent focused on the long history of minority exclusion from the New Haven ranks of firefighters, particularly in senior positions. The dissent held that it is permissible to make a race-based decision to remedy a disparate impact where, as in the case before it, there was "good cause" to find the test flawed.

The case is Ricci v. DeStefano and the opinion is here.