Ricci: Color-Blind Standards in a Race Conscious Society?

While the Court’s decision in Ricci v. DeStefano focused mostly on disparate impact law, much of the subsequent discussion has focused on the threshold finding that the City of New Haven’s decision not to use the test scores to promote firefighters was, as a matter of law, disparate treatment discrimination against some white firefighters who would be promoted if the test scores were used. Recent events suggest that the issues raised in those discussion may have to be decided since African-American testtakers have now challenged the use of the test scores as both disparate treatment and disparate impact discrimination.

The Court described the factual basis for finding that the City’s decision not to use the test scores was disparate treatment discrimination against those testtakers — the 17 whites and two Hispanic who would have been promoted if the test scores were used:

“When the examination results showed that white candidates had outperformed minority candidates, the mayor and other local politicians opened a public debate that turned rancorous. 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, relying on the statistical racial disparity, ignored the test results and denied promotions to the candidates who had performed well. In the end the City took the side of those who protested the test results. It threw out the examinations.”

The Court later describes why those facts support, as a matter of law, a finding of disparate treatment discrimination:

“The City’s actions would violate the disparate-treatment prohibition of Title VII absent some valid defense. 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 when compared to white candidates. . . . Whatever the City’s ultimate aim—however well intentioned or benevolent it might have seemed—the City made its employment decision because of race. The City rejected the test results solely because the higher scoring candidates were white.”

In sum, because the City knew the distribution by race of the test scores and knew that if the scores were used to promote firefighters to lieutenant and captain positions, no African American testtakers and all but two Hispanic testtakers would not get promoted to fill the openings that then existed.  (Over the two year lifetime of the test, three African Americans might be considered for promotion to lieutenant if there were new openings.) While the Court appeared to focus on two racial groups of testtakers – whites and African-Americans — in fact there were six different groups based on three racial groups members which were represented in two groups — those affected favorably by the decision not to use the test scores and those affected unfavorably.

 These are the six different groups:

 1. The  24 African American who, because the City decided not to use the test scores,  now have an improved chance for promotion if some other method is used to make the promotions. The City claims their threat of a disparate impact lawsuit was why it decided not to use the test scores.

2. The three African-American testtakers who might be considered for promotion to lieutenant if there were more openings over the two year life span of the test results. If it was decided not to use the test scores, their chance for promotion probably decline but that would not be known until it was known what the alternative promotion procedures the City might adopt would mean for them.

 3. The 20 Hispanic testtakers who, like the 24 African-American testtakers in group 1, would not have been promoted under the tests.

 4. The 51 white testtakers who did not score high enough to be promoted if the test scores would be used. Like the African-American and Hispanic testtakers in groups 1 and 3, their chances for promotion were improved by the City’s decision not to use the test scores because they had no chance for promotion if the test scores were used.

 5. The 17 white testtakers who did score high enough to be promoted if the test scores were used. With the decision not to use the test scores, their chances for promotion declined. They lost a sure thing and only have some chance for promotion under whatever system the City would decide to use for promotions instead of the test scores.

 6. The two Hispanic testtakers who scored high enough to be promoted if the test scores were used. Like the members of group 5, they have a reduced chance of promotion because they lost a sure thing.    

 In sum, there are six distinct groups involving three different racial groups and two possible outcomes. Each racial group had members in the group that would be treated more favorably if the test scores were used and had members in the group who likely would be treated more favorably if the scores were not used and some alternative selection method was adopted. In other words, the results as to all the testtakers resembles a racial mosaic, with the decisions not made along strict racial lines. This table shows the results as to all six groups: 

                                               Racial Groups

  Whites African Americans Hispanics
Advantaged if test used 17 3 2
Advantaged if test not used 51 24 20

 Based on this, how could the Court conclude, as a matter of law, that the “City rejected the test results solely because the higher scoring candidates were white”? Was it also disparate treatment discrimination against the two Hispanic testtakers who would be promoted if the test scores were used and the three African-American testtakers who had some chance for promotion during the life span of the test results? None of these questions were addressed in Ricci. Why was this solely discrimination against the 17 white testtakers and not anyone else or everyone else?

 The basis for the Court’s conclusion appears to be simply that the City acted with knowledge of the racial impact of using or not using the test scores on all three races, not just the impact on the 17 white testtakers who were the first group to sue. The Court assumed there was no animus against any of the racial groups because there was disparate treatment racial discrimination “[e]ven if respondents were motivated as a subjective matter by a desire to avoid committing disparate-impact discrimination.”

 So, even if the City had subjectively intended to benefit members of the first three groups that included whites, Hispanics and African Americans, its decision not to use the test scores amounts to an intent to discriminate against only one group, the whites who would benefit if the test scores were used. If the City’s decision was disparate treatment discrimination against the white plaintiffs, what is the explanation for it also not being disparate treatment against those members of these two minority groups who were similarly situated to those white plaintiffs? Since those Hispanics and African Americans did not sue, is it simply out of sight, out of mind? 

Deciding to benefit, or not to disadvantage, most of the testtakers be they African-American, Hispanic or white inevitably, for the Court, supports drawing the inference, as a matter of law, that the City acted with an objective intent to discriminate solely against the comparatively small group of whites who were disadvantaged by that decision. Apparently, what got the City in trouble with the Supreme Court was that the City acted, knowing the racial consequences of its decision not to use the test. Of course, the City also had to know that its decision would also disadvantage some Hispanic and African-American testtakers as well as the white plaintiffs and that it would also be to the advantage of members of all three racial groups who would get a new chance to be promoted under whatever alternative promotion system the City might adopt.

Can support for this objective intent rule be found in the Title VII systemic disparate treatment cases where plaintiff establishes liability by proving the existence of an explicit, written employment policy that expressly discriminates? For example, in Los Angeles Department of Water & Power v. Manhart, plaintiffs proved that the defendant had an employment policy requiring all women to contribute more for their pensions than all men. That policy was drawn with all women on one side of the classification and all men on the other. That is not the situation in Ricci since members of all three groups fall on both sides of the line and there is no express policy to discriminate.  In International Union, UAW v. Johnson Controls, the Court found that an express employment policy excluding all fertile women but no fertile men from jobs making batteries was systemic disparate treatment even though non-fertile women and all men were not disqualified. This is not Ricci since not all members of one racial group were on one side of the line as the men were in Johnson Controls and, again, there was no express policy drawing any racial division. Those cases give little support to the idea that disparate treatment liability can be found without an express classification and with impact that leaves members of all racial groups on both sides of the line.

It is also not clear that the systemic disparate treatment cases based on statistical evidence proving the employer had an intentionally discriminatory employment practice support the holding in Ricci. In Teamsters and Hazelwood School District, the statistics established intent, even in the absence of proof that no African Americans were, respectively, over-the-road truckers or school teachers. In the situation of an “inexorable zero” of African-American truckers in Teamsters and the statistically significant absence of African-American teachers in Hazelwood is quite different from the statistics in this case where disparate treatment was found even though the white plaintiffs were only 25% of all the whites who took the test. Looking at the statistics alone, it would seems to be unlikely to support drawing an inference of intentional race discrimination against the members of any of the six groups without drawing the same inference as to the members of each of the six groups. That would not be disparate treatment discrimination.

There is support in the cases for the proposition that simply being conscious of the race or gender of the affected individuals does not support drawing an inference of intent to discriminate sufficient to support a claim of disparate treatment discrimination. Justice O’Connor, in her concurring opinion in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, made it clear that intent to discriminate cannot be found solely on the fact that the race or gender of the person affected by the decision is known to the decisionmaker:

“Race and gender always ‘play a role’ in . . . a benign sense that these are human characteristics of which decisionmakers are aware and may comment on in a perfectly neutral fashion. For example, . . mere reference to ‘a lady candidate’ might show that gender ‘played a role’ in the decision, but by no means could support a rational factfinder’s inference that the decision was made ‘because of’ sex.”

Similarly, in the context of equal protection law, the Court, in Personnel Administrator of Massachusetts v. Feeney, found that an absolute preference for hiring military veterans at a time when men were 98% of the veterans was not intentional discrimination against all women other than the 2% of veterans who were women even though the vast majority of women would be disqualified if even one veteran applied for the job:

“’Discriminatory purpose,’ however, implies that the decisionmaker . . . selected or reaffirmed a particular course of action at least in part ‘because of,’ not merely ‘in spite of,’ its adverse effects upon an identifiable group.”

The concurring opinion of Justice Alito in Ricci argues that the motive for the City deciding not to use the test was the mayor’s fear of the consequences of local, racialized politics aimed at him: “[W]ere the exams certified, the Mayor would incur the wrath of [Rev. Boise] Kimber and other influential leaders of New Haven’s African-American community.” Assuming that avoiding the wrath of some members of the community was what drove the decision not to use the test, the City’s announced reason for not using the tests of trying to avoid disparate impact liability seems like a pretext. But, a pretext for what? It is hard to conclude that it is a pretext for discrimination against some of the testtakers. Giving in to political pressure to benefit African-American does not equate with an intent to discriminate against some but not all white, Hispanic and African-American testtakers “because of” their race. Justice Alito’s reasoning is at odds with Hazen Paper Co. v. Biggins, where the Court, in an age discrimination case, held that an illegitimate, even unlawful, intent to discriminate to deny the plaintiff his pension simply was no evidence of age discrimination. Of course, decisions can be motivated by more than one factor, but where is the evidence of another factor other than racial politics or the subjective intent to not disadvantage African American testtakers? If anything, Justice Alito has inadvertently provided a defense in this case that the City did not think to present. Perhaps its best defense would have been to admit that the City gave into political pressures. That may be a lot of things, but it is not evidence of an intent to discriminate “because of” race against the 17 white testtakers who sued first. Whether or not what he claims was the motivation for the City’s action is true, Justice Alito’s position does not support finding the City acted with intent to discriminate against the 17 Riccii plaintiffs.

The Court appeared to take a giant leap from the fact that the City knew the racial distribution of the testtakers and the racial consequences of using the test to concluding, as a matter of law, that the decision not to use the scores was “because of” the race of one of the six different groups. With whites, Hispanics and African Americans in both groups of those affected positively and negatively by whatever decision that was made, it is hard to see where intent to discriminate because of race against these particular plaintiffs played any role at all.

Should civil rights advocates take Ricci as a progressive step forward?  Ricci does seem to have tremendous potential for changing the approach to proving intentional discrimination to the advantage of plaintiffs: Plaintiff can establish liability simply by proving that (1) the defendant knew the racial or gender consequences of its decision and (2) it then made that decision and (3) the plaintiff suffered an adverse employment impact. The intent to discriminate element, which traditionally has been the hardest to prove, becomes simply a question of the defendant’s knowledge of the racial consequences without more.  Not only is plaintiff’s burden of proving intent vastly simplified, the Court’s approach seems to knock out the linkage, the “because of” race element, that supposedly joins a defendant’s intent to discriminate to an adverse employment action suffered by the plaintiff “because of” the victim’s race. All that is necessary is proof that the defendant knew the race of those affected by the decision and that those adversely affected were of one race or another or, as in Ricci, of as many racial groups that are involved. Go back to the opening quote. Once the racial consequences of the use of the test were known, a huge debate broke out, with some claiming the use of the test was discrimination and others claiming the refusal to use the test was discrimination. The City picked one of those two outcomes and the Supreme Court found it liable for discrimination in making that choice. If the City had picked the other outcome, would not there just be a different group of plaintiffs claiming disparate treatment discrimination?

Let’s see how this works now that the City of New Haven has announced that it will implement the test scores to promote firefighters to the lieutenant and captain openings. Without more evidence, the outcome on all six groups is the same though the valence has flipped: As before some, but not all, white testtakers, Hispanic and African-American testtakers are positively affected by using the test scores and some members of all three racial groups are negatively affected.  Assuming no other proof of subjective intent to discriminate because of race against anyone, is the City nevertheless liable for intentional disparate treatment based against those newly affected by the decision to go ahead using the test scores?  Just as in Ricci, the City will be acting, knowing the racial consequences of its action. Only this time, those who were advantaged when the test scores were not used are now disadvantaged and vice versa. This makes the City damned if it does, and damned if it doesn’t. But, that is the outcome that logical consistency seems to require based on the minimalist grounds relied on to find, as a matter of law, disparate treatment discrimination in Ricci.

We may get to find out how this will be worked out since some African-American testtakers who will be disadvantaged if the City goes ahead with its plan to use the test scores have moved to intervene in Ricci at its implementation phase and have filed EEOC charges that the decision to use the test scores is both disparate treatment and disparate impact discrimination. Further, Briscoe v. City of New Haven involves a claim by an African-American testtaker that the test caused disparate impact because of how the test score were weighted with oral test scores to make the rank order list. Briscoe claims that if the weighting were different, he would be among those promoted.

Some might argue that it is wrong to put the City in the situation of being liable to the Ricci plaintiffs for deciding not to use the test scores and to the new plaintiffs for deciding to use the scores. If the standard is in fact to be “color-blind” in decisionmaking that affects employees, that is, that making a decision knowing its racial consequences is disparate treatment discrimination, the result may seem harsh but it seems logically to follow. Further, holding the City liable to both groups does not put it in the position of having mutually inconsistent obligations: Because of Ricci, those white plaintiffs will get promoted (as will the two Hispanics and, if openings subsequently occur within two years, up to three African Americans as well). Because of a disparate treatment challenge recently brought against the City for now deciding to use the test scores, these new plaintiffs also get a remedy, but it would not include replacing those promoted using the test scores. Since these new plaintiffs have yet to be determined to be qualified for promotion, presumably, the City would be ordered to establish a nondiscriminatory system of promotions. Then, if these plaintiffs successfully wend their way through that process, they would be eligible openings for lieutenants and captains that occur after the time span for the use of the test has passed. Presumably, they would receive as backpay and frontpay the difference between their pay as firefighters and lieutenant or captain salaries which would last until they are promoted into openings as they arise.

If the Court has adopted a something like an absolute “color-blind” test of intent to discriminate for Title VII, the only way employers can insulate themselves from disparate treatment liability is to make employment decisions behind a veil of ignorance as to race. Employers may have to follow the lead of symphony orchestras that have come to use blind auditions when selecting new members of the orchestra. If there was no other evidence of discrimination, the effective use of a veil of ignorance would seem to protect the decisions from claims of disparate treatment discrimination since the racial consequences were not known by the decisionmaker when the decision was made. The “cats paw” case that the Supreme Court recently granted cert. on may illuminate this area of discrimination law.

Where did this radical “color-blind” standard of disparate treatment discrimination come from and how can it be? While, during the Sotomayor nomination proceedings, some talking heads and commentators denounced empathy as a factor in judicial decision making, the Ricci majority, and the dissent, exude empathy for the white plaintiffs who did go to great effort and expense to prepare for the exam and thought they won the prize: test scores high enough to result in their promotions to lieutenant and captain positions. The decision not to use the test scores dashed those expectations. Justice Kennedy expressed it this way:

“[A]fter the tests were completed, the raw racial results became the predominant rationale for the City’s refusal to certify the results. The injury arises in part from the high, and justified, expectations of the candidates who had participated in the testing process on the terms the City had established for the promotional process. Many of the candidates had studied for months, at considerable personal and financial expense, and thus the injury caused by the City’s reliance on raw racial statistics at the end of the process was all the more severe.” 

One way of looking at this from a technical point of view is that the Court feels compelled to justify finding that the reduced opportunity for promotion which resulted from the decision not to use the test scores was sufficiently adverse to satisfy the “adverse employment action” element of a disparate treatment discrimination case. Without finding some present impact on these white testtakers, it might be hard to conclude that they had suffered an adverse employment action. Dashing an earned reliance interest does provide an adverse employment action even though nothing has actually happened to these plaintiffs or, in fact, to any of the testtakers. But Justice Kennedy seems to make much more out of this. It appears to be the basis for jumping past the “because of” element of a disparate treatment case so that racial consciousness satisfies the intent to discriminate element which establishes liability when an adverse employment action results from that decision, whether or not that decision was “because of race.” 

Another way of looking at this earned reliance interest issue is as a limit on the scope of application of this newly announced disparate treatment doctrine: The employer does not commit disparate treatment discrimination if its decision that is based on the known racial consequences precedes the creation of reliance interests in anyone. Planning to use some sort of employment practice, such as the written test in Ricci, can include the employer projecting what the racial consequences of that use of that practice might be and revising the plan so as to reduce disparate impact, just as long as all the action takes place before anyone has a reliance interest in the implementation of the employment practice. This meaning seems consistent with Justice Kennedy’s concurring opinion in Parents Involved, as to the ability of school boards to act to establish school attendance policies that take account of the racial populations of the different schools just as long as race is not used to decide the school to which individual students will be assigned. So, not all action when the racial consequences are known constitutes disparate treatment discrimination. But the employer must be “color-blind” when some employees have an established reliance interest. So, perhaps, employers need not establish race-blind procedures to make all employment decisions, as long as no one has any established reliance interest as stake. An important new issue will be, therefore, when reliance interests are created because, once they are, risk averse employers will use race-blind procedures.

Does anyone believe that Ricci is a tremendous progressive step making employment discrimination cases very much easier for plaintiffs? Will a majority of the Court now empathize with the African-American plaintiffs who have challenged the use of the test scores in Ricci as disparate treatment discrimination against them?  If a majority of the Court avoids finding liability as to them, how will they support such a decision, given  the logical consequences of its move toward a color-blind standard of liability in this race conscious society of ours?

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10 Responses

  1. I’m guessing this is an academic exercise and you are not really that aghast at public institutions using test scores for advancement purposes. As law professors, most of you have been relying on test scores to break out from the pack throughout your schooling (and, of course, obtaining a so-called Top Tier school degree somewhere along the line).

    The case arose because the City caved to the political blackmail of a local minister (and why don’t law professors get that exercised about church-state matters when the Liturgical Left is involved). And it continues with the Briscoe case you mentioned. But often overlooked is that the testing (and weighting therein) was not unilaterally imposed by the city but instead was the result of an agreement with the union.

    So by all means let’s push through card check so even more of our work force can be forced to benefit from such enlightment. And can we all continue to work for a just society whereby it is an accepted axiom of the law that it isn’t discrimination when so-called progressives do it.

  2. RJ says:

    Zimmer is drinking some serious Kool-Aid here. For one thing, he doesn’t even have his facts right, a failing he has unfortunately displayed in his prior posts. Second, he is obviously a liberal ideologue wedded to racial preferences for minorities and can’t let it go and his sentiments infect his entire analysis. Third, he is totally ignorant of the reality in New Haven. This case involved deliberate, blatant racial discrimination against whites by a pandering mayor and a city run largely by African-Americans with a decades long history of it. “Disparate impact” concerns, this record showed, was just a pretext for it. If the shoe was the other foot, and a city refused to honor test results because “too many blacks” qualified, I doubt Zimmer would be offering the fantastical arguments he makes here. But such academic hypocrisy is unfortunately a trademark of liberal law professors who never tried a case in their lives, never represented actual victims, never held a real job and are clueless about the workplace of the average American and the racial politics that goes on in it.

  3. harry brooks says:

    Zimmer offers more mumbo jumbo.  Despite the haze of smoke Zimmer blows at the Ricci case and the majority opinion, and his best efforts, in the grand tradition of the liberal professoriate, to obscure the facts and twist the law, Zimmer cannot obsure the simple fact that a group of men who qualified for promotion in what was supposed to be a race-blind process, were denied the jobs because of their race.   It was a politically craven and indefensible act with unconscionable injury caused to those men, their carreers and their families.  That Zimmer would go to such lengths to sanitize the city’s conduct and conceive of fanciful legal theories under which the Ricci holding might be undermined, is disgraceful.  Zimmer should get out of his armchair and visit a firehouse to see real men at work, risking their lives everyday, something Zimmer will never do. Then Zimmer might understand why firefighters who are the victims of his vision of the fire service as a laboratory for disparate impact theorists consider him to be an ass.

  4. RJ says:

    The sheer silliness of Zimmer’s claims about the comparative “numbers” of whites, blacks, etc, who would have benefitted from the city’s do-over of the selection process is demonstrated by the following hypothetical: suppose an employer holds a lottery to decide which 5 of his 15 employees will get Christmas Day off. Six of the employees are black, the rest are white. The lottery results in 4 blacks winning the day off. The employer says: “Oh, that’s not fair, not enough whites got the day off, I’m rejecting those results and holding the lottery anew.” The blacks complain. The employer responds: what are you complaining about? A redo will be to the benefit of all six blacks. I’m sure Zimmer, like most liberals, will worm his way out of his double standards on the issue of race.

  5. Observer says:

    Zimmer’s argument is wacky. He ignores the fact that Ricci involved a small number of vacancies (16 to be exact). As a factual matter, it is undisputed that the city rejected the results of the exam process because too many whites were among the successful applicants for those 16 slots. With a repeat of the selection procedure the city aimed to decrease the number of whites who were eligible for those limited vacancies (which would of course disqualify some of the Ricci plaintiffs to boot). Zimmer posits that the city’s race-conscious decision would have enured to the benefit of numerous whites (by giving all the losing whites another shot at the job). What??????? The whole point of the city’s attempted do-over was to decrease the number of “white” winners. Zimmer stretches, quite amazingly, to turn a pig’s ear into a silk purse.

  6. One can’t help but wonder what Zimmer is thinking. The record in this case is voluminous and finally indicates pretty clearly what the city should do to right this wrong. It also makes it clear as crystal, that the Justices knew exactly what the motive was behind this entire disgraceful waste of taxpayer dollars for political means, while discriminating against the most qualified candidate for promotion to these critical public safety leadership jobs.

    A somewhat confusing spreadsheet that zimmer lays out attempts to place a smoke screen over the fact that there were a limited number of vacancies, also pointing out the number of minority applicants, this was all relative to the number of vacancies. Who benefits from the scuttling of these tests? Those who want a second bite at the apple! How is that a justification? The logic is pathetic and quite maddening.

    Zimmer ignores from his fireplace heated lounge, while sitting in his high back leather chair. Part of an exclusive society, that in fact measures itself through competative examinations, yet wont consider the same measure for one of the nations most critical occupations. Quite frankly if I were a firefighter I would be insulted.

  7. TJ says:

    I think you are stretching a little too much here. In one way, you can say that the test applied in Ricci was (1) the City knew the racial consequences of its decision, (2) it made the decision anyway. And you argue that the court skipped right past the “because of” element.

    But, of course, proof of causation generally involves a “but for” situation. That is, the difference you are missing is that it is very clear in Ricci that, “but for” knowing the racial consequences of its decision, the city would not have made the same decision. This is the key difference between Ricci and your hypo (based on Justice O’Connor) where the employer is aware of the applicant’s race but accords it no weight.

    Now, proving the defendant would have taken the same action anyway is generally a burden on the defendant under Price Waterhouse. But that is just a detail. Proposing that Ricci will lead to a revolution is wishful thinking.

  8. RJ says:

    “Legal Fact Finder” – you are spot on. Actually, if you think about it, Zimmer is in reality just regurgitating the district court’s reasoning. Remember that the only ruling before the SC was the one authored by the district court, as the Second Circuit didn’t write its own opinion but just summarily adopted in toto the district court’s analysis. And the district court’s rationale is pretty much what Zimmer is now floating (nobody was hurt, everybody gets another bite at the apple with a new exam, ho harm, no foul, etc). That ruling was outright reversed. The district court’s Zimmer-like rationale was not only flatly rejected by the majority but, Justice Ginsburg’s defense of it was hammered by Judge Alito in his concurrence. Zimmer is really just arguing that Ginsburg was right and the majority was wrong. And of course, that is a losing argument.

  9. Take a look at the penultimate paragraph in the Court’s opinion in Ricci: “If, after it certifies the test results, the City faces a disparate-impact suit, then in light of our holding today it should be clear that that the City would avoid disparate-impact liability based on a strong basis in evidence that, had it not certified the results, it would have been subject to disparate-treatment liability.” I think the same thing is true if the challenge is framed as a disparate-treatment claim (besides being completely at odds with the intent requirements of Feeney).