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Ricci v. DeStefano

Citation. 557 U.S. 557 (2009)
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Brief Fact Summary.

After the city of New Haven, Connecticut (Defendant) and its officials (Defendants) refused to certify the results of a firefighter promotion exam because of the practices disparate impact on minorities, the white and Hispanic firefighters who passed the exam (Plaintiffs) brought suit alleging racial discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

A municipality that refuses to certify the results of a valid civil service exam because it unintentionally had a disparate impact on minority candidates violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.


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.


When a municipality refuses to certify the results of an examination that had a disparate impact on minority candidates, does it violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964?


(Kennedy, J.) Yes. A municipality that refuses to certify the results of a valid civil service exam because it unintentionally had a disparate impact on minority candidates violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The evidence presented shows that the city threw out the results of the test because the higher scoring candidates were white. Absent legal justification, this expressly race-based decision is a violation of Title VII’s prohibition against intentional discrimination based on race. The question is whether an intent to avoid liability for employment practices resulting in disparate impact on minority candidates excuses otherwise illegal disparate treatment practices. In Equal Protection cases, the Court has found government actions to remedy past racial discrimination are constitutional only where there is a “strong basis in evidence” that the remedial actions are necessary. The same analysis can be applied in Title VII cases. It is too simplistic and restrictive to hold that an employer must actually be in violation of the disparate impact provision of Title VII before it can use compliance as a defense in a disparate treatment action. Forbidding employers from acting to reduce disparate impact until they are certain that they are violating the disparate impact provision would frustrate the intent of the law to encourage employers to take voluntary action to eliminate discrimination. However, allowing an employer to take intentionally discriminatory action based only on a good faith belief that it is necessary to avoid violating the disparate impact provision is also undesirable. An approach that encourages voluntary compliance by employers and still provides fair employment opportunities for all is needed. The “strong basis in evidence” test imported from the Equal Protection context meets that need. Applying this standard here, it is clear that the city’s action in refusing to certify the test results did not meet the strong basis in evidence test. Reversed.


(Ginsburg, J.) The city’s actions were not taken “because of race.” Title VII’s disparate impact and disparate treatment provisions should be read as complementary, not conflicting. The statute declares that employment selection criteria that adversely affect minorities can only be used if there is a business necessity. If an employer follows the law and rejects employment criteria with this result based upon doubts about its reliability, he is not engaging in discrimination “because of” race. An employer who throws out a promotion selection practice when it results in disparate racial impact and is not a business necessity does not violate Title VII’s disparate treatment provision. Here, the city had a reason to believe that its exam would violate the disparate impact provision because the 60/40 ration of written to oral portions was not necessary for effective job performance. The standard announced by the majority will make voluntary compliance more difficult, will lead to more litigation, and will effectively require employers to establish that they violated the law before they can take action. Justice Alito argues that the city’s actions were politically motivated, but such motivations are permitted so long as they are not discriminatory. The city was not trying to exclude white firefighters from promotion but was trying to avoid a disparate impact lawsuit. The city did not commit a disparate treatment violation.


(Scalia, J.) The majority decision does not address the question of whether Title VII’s disparate impact provision is consistent with the Equal Protection Clause. Title VII affirmatively requires remedial race-based actions in order to prevent a disparate impact violation. The Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution prohibits the federal government from discriminating on the basis of race, including by passing statutes like Title VII that mandates that states or private employers discriminate on the basis of race. The fact that Title VII does not have racial quotas does not make it constitutional because employers create hiring practices that achieve the same result. Intentional discrimination is being mandated by the federal government and it is not made constitutional because it is motivated by good intentions. Also, the disparate impact provisions are too broad to be used as an evidentiary tool to identify intentional discrimination, especially because the provisions do not allow employers to show that its actions are in good faith and reasonable. 

(Alito, J.) There was evidence that the city’s actions were a pretext for intentional discrimination against whites in order to appease the mayor’s African American constituency. No matter what test is used, this conduct is prohibited.


This case makes it harder for employers to reject employment tests that adversely affect protected groups. In order to prevent lawsuits, employers will have to try to determine the impact a test will have on such groups before it is given, something that may not always be apparent before it is administered.

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