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Chicago Must Hire 111 Victims of Firefighter Discrimination

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By Stephanie Rabiner, Esq. on May 19, 2011 6:50 AM

After countless appeals, a Supreme Court ruling, and 16 years, a lawsuit brought against the Chicago Fire Department on behalf of nearly 6,000 African-American firefighter applicants is almost over.

On Friday, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled, that to rectify the discriminatory and disparate impact of an employment policy, the department must hire 111 of the African-Americans who took a 1995 qualifying exam, and split an estimated $30 million between the rest.

In 1995, the Chicago Fire Department decided that, while anyone who scored 65 or above on its qualifying exam had passed the test, it would only hire, at random, applicants who scored an 89 or above.

Firefighters were then randomly hired from that list between 1996 and 2001.

While a seemingly race-neutral decision, only 11% of African-American applicants scored 89 or above, reports The Washington Post. The majority of the pool was Caucasian.

The applicants sued the Chicago Fire Department on the basis of disparate impact.

Disparate impact discrimination occurs when a non-discriminatory, legal policy has a discriminatory effect. Regardless of its intentions, an employer can be held liable if the policy is not justifiable as a business necessity.

The Department had conceded that the 89-and-above policy had a discriminatory, or disparate, impact on African-American applicants. However, it argued that the cut-off and randomization of hiring was justifiable.

The 7th Circuit disagreed, stating that randomly hiring applicants is in opposition to the "usual civil-service practice of hiring in rank order from a list." It was thus not a business necessity.

In the coming months, the District Court will determine how to rectify the disparate impact of this policy, by deciding just how much the Chicago Fire Department needs to pay the plaintiffs and exactly who will be hired.

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