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Zimmer on Ricci

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Mike Zimmer (Loyola), co-author of the leading casebook on employment discrimination and friend of the blog has provided these thoughts on the Supreme Court’s Ricci decision from yesterday.

1. The Holding. The defendants’ decision to not use test results because their use would have meant that no African-American and only two Hispanics, who made up over half of the testtakers, would be promoted was intentional disparate treatment discrimination against the white testtakers who would have been promoted if the test results had been used. That the adverse impact of the test results amounted to a prima facie case of disparate impact discrimination was not a defense to a disparate treatment case unless the employer has a strong basis in evidence to believe that it will be liable for disparate impact discrimination.

2. A Procedurally Unusual Decision. The district court, affirmed by the court of appeals, had granted summary judgment for the defendants. Not only did the Supreme Court reject the summary judgment for the defendants but found that plaintiffs were entitled to summary judgment. That means that the Court found that no material facts existed that would justify a trial. The four slip opinions run a total of 89 pages; 31 pages – 38% of the total — deal with relatively straight forward recitation of facts, most of which are quite constested.  Many more deal with application of facts to law, again with most applications hotly contested. Reading this suggests that the Supreme Court has taken upon itself the role of a trial court.

3. Acting When the Race of Those Affected is Intentional Discrimination. The key factual finding of the Court is that: “All the evidence demonstrates that the City chose not to certify the examination results because of the statistical disparity based on race – i.e., how minority candidates had performed compared to white candidates. . . . Without some other justification, this express, race-based decisionmaking violates Title VII’s command that employers cannot take adverse employment actions because of an individual’s race. . . . [T]he city made its employment decision because of race. The City rejected the test results solely because the higher scoring candidates were white.”

Justice Kennedy takes an enormous leap from the first conclusion – that the City acted because it knew the “statistical disparity based on race”—to his second – that it rejected the test “solely because the higher scoring candidates were white.”  In all the pages of factual recitation and application, there is simply no reference to any evidence that the sole cause of the decision was because using the test results would benefit whites. Is there no difference between intending not to disadvantage African-American and Hispanic candidates and intending to discriminate against the white candidates?

When the Civil Service Board made its decision, it only knew what the racial distribution and therefore the potential disparate impact if the test results were used. It did not know the identity of any of the testtakers. Therefore, it appears that an employer conscious knowledge of the race of those affected by its decisions suffices to make out intentional disparate treatment discrimination. This appears to be a tremendous change in the law.  For example, in Justice O’Connor’s concurrence in Price v. Waterhouse, she indicated that, “Race and gender always ‘play a role’ in an employment decision in the benign sense that these are human characteristics of which decisionmakers are aware and may comment on in a perfectly neutral and nondiscriminatory fashion.”

Justice Alito is convinced that, because an important participant in the political process was an African-American preacher, the decision of the CSB was “because of race” as a matter of law. Justice Ginsburg argues that the decision may have been made “because of politics” and not race since the white firefighters and their union were vociferous advocates for using the test. The decision may have been because of race or because of politics or because of some of each. Doesn’t this suggest a factual question that deserves a trial?

4. Should the African-American and Hispanic Testakers Claim Disparate Treatment Discrimination? Suppose that New Haven now uses the results of the tests and promotes some white firefighters. Because the City knew the race of those promoted, was that intentional discrimination against minority testakers who were not promoted? If not, why not? Is using the test results to promote people different from deciding not to use them?

The Supreme Court has been edging toward establishing a color-blind standard for equal protection, see Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School Dist. No. 1, 127 S.Ct. 2738 (2007) (plurality opinion), and Ricci appears to import that into Title VII. These decisions involve challenges by whites to the use of race in a way that gives advantages to minority group members or, as here, removes an absolute impediment to the advancement of African-Americans and Hispanics. If a color-blind standard can be used by white plaintiffs, why can’t these minority firefighters rely on it?

5. Is Proof of Intent to Discriminate Reduced to Proving the Defendant Knew the Race of the Affected Individuals? Is racial consciousness, when acted upon, the same as acting with an intent to discriminate? If so, Ricci revolutionizes discrimination law. Assume an African-American applies but is rejected for a job after an interview. Does she establish defendant’s liability by getting the defendant’s interviewer to admit that she was conscious of the fact that the plaintiff is black?

6. The Strong Basis in Evidence Justification. In United States v. Board of Educ. of the Township of Piscataway, 91 F.3d 1547 (3rd Cir. 1996) (en banc), cert. dismissed, 522 U.S. 1010 (1997), the court had imported equal protection analysis into Title VII’s treatment of affirmative action. Does the Court’s adoption of the strong basis in evidence test effectively implement that importation?  Only Justice Ginsburg in dissent puts this decision into context with the Title VII affirmative action decisions to criticize this decision. Are these affirmative action decisions in jeopardy now?

7. The “Q” Word Strikes Again. Is the fear that employers would have an incentive to use racial quotas what drives this decision?

8. Why Isn’t There Strong Support for Disparate Impact Liability? The Court concluded that, “The racial adverse impact here was signicant, and . . the City was faced with a prima facie case of disparate-impact liability.” The Court then minimizes what that means: “[A] prima facie case of disparate-impact liability – essentially a threshold showing of a significant statistical disparity and nothing more – is far from a strong basis in evidence that the City would have been liable under Title VII had it certified the results.”  Does this undermine the significance that this prima facie showing shifts both  the burden of proof and of persuasion to the defendant?  Is the Court attempting to reinstate Wards Cove?

9. Was the Test Job-Related and Consistent with Business Necessity as a Matter of Law?  The written examination part of the test asked questions based on the testtakers ability to memorize extensive documents. Under the approach of the EEOC Uniform Test Guidelines as well as professional test standards, what IOS did was to construct a test that was supposedly content validated, i.e., that it was a sample of the job. While IOS supposedly did a job analysis, neither taking written or oral exams were involved in the jobs of lieutenant or captain in the fire department.  Nor is there any indication that memorization and recall of documents played any role at all in the jobs for which the test was to be used. The use of “assessment centers” where testtakers play the role that replicates the actual job can be content validated as job samples. Isn’t there at least a question of fact whether the test that was used was not job-related and not consistent with business necessity?

10. Was Section 703(h) Test Provision Superseded by the 1991 Civil Rights Act? The Court does not address the jurisprudence associated with the test exception in original §703(h). Has the Court decided sub silentio that this provision and its underlying jurisprudence has been repealed when Congress codified disparate impact law in new § 703(k)?

11. Were There No Less Discriminatory Alternatives as a Matter of Law? The record showed alternatives that were less discriminatory – simply altering the ratio of written to oral scores appeared to have reduced discriminatory impact in Bridgeport, using “assessment centers” or altering the “rule of three” to a banding approach – all were alternatives that could have been adopted instead of the test that was used.  The Court appears to assume that, because it was too late to adopt any of these alternatives to resuscitate this test, they could not count as alternatives. But, in fact, the City could consider these precisely because it had decided not to use the results of this test.

12. Should the Minority Testtakers Claim Disparate Impact Discrimination? Assuming the City would now use the test results, should the African-American and Hispanic testtakers bring a disparate impact claim? With the Supreme Court deciding as a matter of law that the test was job-related and consistent with business necessity and that there were no less discriminatory alternatives available, is there anything left to contest?

13. Empathy for Whom? With the statement by President Obama that he seeks to appoint Justices who have empathy, what does Ricci suggest about empathy? Justice Kennedy concluded that, “Examinations like those administered by the City create legitimate expectations on the part of those who took the tests. As is the case with any promotion exam, some of the firefighters here invested substantial time, money, and personal commitment in preparing for the tests. . . . [O]nce [the test process] has been established and employers have made clear their selection criteris, they may not then invalidate the test results, thus upsetting an employee’s legitimate expectation not to be judged on the basis of race.” Nothing in any of the opinions suggest that the employer had committed itself in advance to use the test results no matter what they might be. Is the Court suggesting that the testtakers had some sort of contractual based right to have the test results used? The last part – about expectations concerning race – would appear to undermine such a contractual claim. However, what about the expectations that employers would not use employment practices that cause a disparate impact? Justice Ginsburg puts the context of this case into the larger frame of the longstanding discrimination minority firefighters have faced and the use of the disparate impact theory to attack their exclusion. Doesn’t this decision defeat their expectations in order to satisfy the expectations of the white testtakers?

14. Is This 1989 Redux? It has been twenty years, but has a new conservative majority in the Roberts Court been able to undermine Title VII just as the Rehnquist Court majority did then? Will Justice Ginsburg’s prediction that this decision will not last prove true?  Will this new majority take the step argued by Justice Scalia to embed Ricci in the Constitution by striking down disparate impact analysis as unconstitutional?

About the Author: Mike Zimmer is a law professor at Loyola University Chicago.  One of his main areas of concentration, which includes co-authoring an Aspen casebook, is employment discrimination. He graduated from Marquette Law School, clerked for Judge Fairchild on the 7th Circuit, worked at Foley & Lardner and have taught at a good number of law schools. Zimmer joined the Loyola faculty after 30 years at Seton Hall Law School.

This article originally appeared in Workplace Prof Blog on June 30, 2009. Re-printed with permission by the author.


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