Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C.S. § 2000e et seq., prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Title VII prohibits both intentional discrimination (known as disparate treatment) as well as, in some cases, practices that are not intended to discriminate but in fact have a disproportionately adverse effect on minorities (known as disparate impact).
In 2003, some 118 New Haven firefighters took examinations to qualify for promotion to the rank of lieutenant or captain. When the results of the exam showed that white candidates had outperformed minority candidates, a rancorous public debate ensued. Some firefighters argued the tests should be discarded because the results showed the tests to be discriminatory. They threatened a discrimination lawsuit if the City made promotions based on the tests. Other firefighters said the exams were neutral and fair. And they, in turn, threatened a discrimination lawsuit if the City ignored the test results and denied promotions to the candidates who had performed well. In the end, the City threw out the results based on the statistical racial disparity. Petitioners, white and Hispanic firefighters who passed the exams but were denied a chance at promotions by the City's refusal to certify the test results, sued the City and respondent officials, alleging that discarding the test results discriminated against them based on their race in violation of, inter alia, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The City responded that had they certified the test results, they could have faced Title VII liability for adopting a practice having a disparate impact on minority firefighters. The District Court granted summary judgment for the defendants, and the Second Circuit affirmed.
Whether the City improperly discarded the examination results to achieve a more desirable racial distribution of promotion.
The U.S. Supreme Court held that the city improperly discarded the examination to achieve a more desirable racial distribution of promotion-eligible candidates, since there was no strong basis in evidence that the examination was deficient and that discarding the examination was necessary to avoid disparate impact. The threshold showing of statistical disparity in the examination results was insufficient by itself to constitute a strong basis in evidence of unlawful disparate impact, the extensively analyzed examinations were job-related and consistent with business necessity, and there was no strong basis in evidence of an equally valid, less-discriminatory testing alternative.