WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled Monday a group of African-Americans did not wait too long to sue Chicago over a hiring test they challenged as discriminatory, freeing them to collect a lower court judgment.
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 5-4 decision said New Haven, Conn., 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 Monday's unanimous opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the court that the applicants' lawsuit over a city of Chicago test used to weed out potential firefighter trainee applicants was not too late.
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 likely would not be hired because of the large number who scored 89 or above. The majority in the top-scoring group were white; only 11 percent were black.
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 announced use of the test scores on Jan. 26, 1996. The first lawsuit was filed March 31, 1997, 430 days after the city announced the results.
But the plaintiffs say a new act of discrimination also happened each time the scores were used in hiring firefighter trainees between May 1996 and October 2001.
A U.S. district judge agreed with the black applicants. After an eight-day trial, the federal judge ordered the city to hire 132 randomly selected African-American applicants who scored above 64. The court also ordered the city to count up the back pay and divide it among the rest of the applicants. The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago overturned that decision.