Ed: Updated to reflect newer posts and correct style
There are many employment lawyers who subscribe to the belief that "No Good Deed Goes Unpunished". A case out of Connecticut and the Second Circuit this month certainly won’t change that perception. Indeed, although the case may have political undertones, it sets up a classic factual case of an employer who apparently tries to do the right thing and STILL gets sued for their actions. Ultimately, the Second Circuit has affirmed that the employer did not violate the law but the issue still remains far from settled.
Here’s the basic facts and background of Ricci v. DeStefano:
In March 2004, New Haven, Connecticut Fire Department held two promotional exams for the positions of Lieutenant and Captain. However, the New Haven Civil Service Board (“CSB”) refused to certify the results of those exams because statistically, the test results showed that the test may have had a disparate impact on African-Americans.
A group of seventeen white candidates and one Hispanic candidates who took the promotional exams sued. These candidates fared fared very well on the test but did not receive a promotion because without the CSB’s certification of the test results, the promotional process could not proceed.
The Plaintiffs asserted that the refusal to certify the examination results violated their rights under Title VII and the Equal Protection Clause. In 2006, the District Court of Connecticut granted New Haven’s motion for summary judgment (decision here) — effectively dismissing the case.
CSB officials said, in their papers, that the reason they refused to certify the results is their desire to comply with the letter and the spirit of Title VII. The District Court noted that "Plaintiffs deride this ‘feigned desire to ‘comply’ with Title VII,’ arguing that defendants in fact violated that statute, and their actions were a mere pretext for promoting the interests of African-American firefighters and political supporters of the mayor. "
What is noteworthy, as the lower court pointed out, is that the case presents "the opposite
scenario of the usual challenge to an employment or promotional examination, as plaintiffs attack not the use of allegedly racially discriminatory exam results, but defendants’ reason for
their refusal to use the results.
Ultimately, the District Court said that Plaintiffs’ contention that "diversity" is a code word for reverse discrimination did not have merit. The employer here was trying to do right by not using a test that had a disparate impact and the Court was unwilling to suggest that the employer’s decision was incorrect. The factual circumstances, as I’ve said before, are much more complex than that and I encourage readers to review the entire decision.
Of course, the Plaintiffs appealed. The Second Circuit last week affirmed the decision in a brief per curiam decision (available here). The Court noted that the CSB "found itself in the unfortunate position of having no good alternatives."
And while the court said it was "unsympathetic to the plaintiffs’ expression of frustration", the Court said that CSB was "simply trying to fulfill its obligations under Title VII when confronted with test results that had a disproportionate racial impact". As such, its actions were protected.
End of story, right?
Well, not quite. Later in the week, the Second Circuit considered, but ultimately rejected a rehearing "in banc" (meaning a decision in front of all of the Second Circuit judges, not just a three judge panel). The Wait a Second Blog explains the procedural mess in further detail in a post here. What is unusual is that the decisions either concurring or dissenting in the decision to rehear the case in banc are lengthy and reveal a deeply divided Second Circuit.
Indeed, the dissent noted that the Second Circuit has done a disservice by not publishing a full opinion on the subject and instead hiding behind a short "per curiam" opinion. Ultimately, the dissent views the issue as one of "great importance" and believes that full consideration by the Second Circuit — or at least a more detailed decision — is warranted. Certainly, the next time this issue is before the Second Circuit, we can expect more fireworks depending on the panel makeup.
The Plaintiffs here have petitioned the Supreme Court to grant certiorari in this case. It certainly merits further watching. I would expect a ruling from the Supreme Court on whether to grant certiorari in fall of 2008.
For employers, this case demonstrates the problem that companies face all the time. Typically, a decision affecting one employee, will leave another unhappy. And even when the employer is trying to do the "right" thing by complying with Title VII (even if there is political overtones) they still could face a lawsuit by a group of employees unhappy with the decision. Strict compliance with the law and getting sound legal advice is the best strategy for avoiding the minefields that continue to exist in this area.
UPDATE: Point of Law was kind enough to pick up on the post and credit should be given to their initial post on the subject late last week (which I was just tipped off to). There are also other blog posts on the subject here, here and here as well.
FURTHER UPDATE 6/17: Wait a Second has an update this afternoon about another dissenting opinion released today by Second Circuit Chief Judge Dennis Jacobs. From a legal procedural perspective, it’s interesting to see the "catfight" going on at the Court of Appeals. But from employment law perspective, it doesn’t really affect the underlying decision.