On Monday, June 29, the Supreme Court decided a hotly debated case attempting to reconcile the dual prohibition in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act against “disparate treatment” discrimination and “disparate impact” discrimination. Disparate treatment discrimination is the intentional different treatment of an individual or group of individuals in the workplace based on their race, color, religion, sex or national origin. Disparate impact discrimination occurs when a facially neutral employment practice has a disproportionally negative effect on the members of one of these protected classes. Title VII also provides, however, that liability for disparate impact discrimination does not exist if the employer can show that its practice was “job related for the position in question and consistent with business necessity.”

An example of the type of policy that has been upheld in prior cases under the disparate impact analysis would be weight and height requirements for firefighters – although those minimum requirements have a disparate impact on female job applicants, they are job related and consistent with business necessity, as the job requires the physical ability to carry an unconscious person out of a burning building. An example of a policy that failed the disparate impact analysis was a particular employer’s requirement that all job applicants have a high school diploma. This policy disproportionately eliminated minority applicants, but there was no evidence that having graduated high school bore any relationship to the ability to perform the job duties.

The case decided today, Ricci v. DeStefano, involved the use of a written and oral test to determine the eligibility of firefighters in the city of New Haven, Connecticut, for promotion. Under the City’s rules, an available promotion to captain or lieutenant could only be offered to individuals with the top three highest scores. The City and the consulting firm it hired to develop the test apparently went to great lengths to design a test that had content relevant to the job, and was nondiscriminatory. Nonetheless, when the test results were in, a disproportionate percentage of black and Hispanic employees taking the test scored lower than white employees taking the test. A public debate ensued and, ultimately, the City threw out the test results to avoid violating the disparate impact prohibitions of Title VII. A group of white and Hispanic employees who received high scores on the test and would likely have been eligible for promotion filed suit, claiming that discarding the test results based solely on a statistical analysis of the racial outcome constituted disparate treatment discrimination against them.

The U.S. Supreme Count (in a narrow 5-4 decision) held that by throwing out the test results the City failed to correctly apply Title VII’s disparate impact analysis – specifically, whether the test was job related and consistent with business necessity. After reviewing the testimony and other evidence presented at trial as to the content of the test and the steps undertaken by the consulting company to create it, the Court concluded that the test was job related and that there was no equally valid, less discriminatory alternative that the City had refused to adopt. Accordingly, in the words of the Court, there was no “strong basis in the evidence” to conclude that the City would have been liable for disparate impact discrimination if it had allowed the test results to stand. Therefore, the City’s conduct amounted to disparate treatment discrimination against the firefighters whose high scores were disregarded.

The challenge for employers in the aftermath of this decision is to find a balance between eliminating facially neutral policies that have a disparate impact on minority workers without inviting allegations that the very act of removing such policies itself discriminates against nonminority workers based on race. Great care should be taken to avoid implementing any employment practices that could have a disparate impact in the first place. Of course, as the City of New Haven discovered, it’s not always possible to predict whether a disparate impact will occur.

The financial consequences of a misstep can be devastating to a business. The New Haven firefighters test at issue in the case was administered to employees in 2003. The results were thrown out shortly thereafter, and six years of costly litigation ensued.