ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, IL - JANUARY 31: A firetruck departs its firehouse enroute to a call January 31, 2005 in Arlington Heights, Illinois. According to an analysis by The Boston Globe, firefighters are showing an alarming drop in response times to calls and barely over a third of calls nationwide are meeting national standards for response time. (Photo by Tim Boyle/Getty Images)
Officials from the city of Chicago said they're prepared to hire a number of black applicants who were denied employment 15 year ago.
They just need som guidance from the circuit courts. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that the discriminated-against applicants did not wait too long to sue the city and sent the 15-year-old case, which has been plagued by setbacks, back to the 7th Circuit Court.
"We stand ready and willing to do so, but we need some ruling from the 7th Circuit first," Mara Georges, the city of Chicago's corporation counsel, said.
Georges said the city plans to hire the would-be firefighters, if the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago determines it should.
The court action spans a 15 year case that challenges a 1995 test that was used to cull applicants who hoped to one day become firefighters. It's also the latest episode in a department with a history of acrimony over racial issues in hiring.
In this latest case, officials told applicants who scored below 89 but above 64 on a 1995 test that they had passed but likely wouldn't be hired as firefighters because a large number of test-takers had scored 89 or above. The majority of those in the top-scoring group were white; only 11 percent were black.
The city's firefighter applicant test is now pass/fail, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley said.
"For decades we have tried to diversify the Chicago Fire Department," Daley said. "But at every turn, like most cities, we have been met with legal challenges from both sides. Still, this administration remains committed to ensuring that the department more reflects the racial makeup of the city."
People are supposed to sue within 300 days in an employment action, and Chicago claimed that clock started ticking when it announced how the test scores would be used in January 1996. The first lawsuit wasn't filed until 430 days after the test results were announced.
The plaintiffs argued there was a new act of discrimination whenever the scores were used in hiring firefighter trainees between May 1996 and October 2001.
"Today, the Supreme Court affirmed that jobseekers should not be denied justice based on a technicality," said John Payton, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc., who argued the case. "This victory goes well beyond the immediate results in Chicago. It should ensure that no other fire department or employer uses a discriminatory test, and LDF will go the extra mile to make sure that they do not."
A U.S. District judge had agreed with the plaintiffs and ordered the city to hire 132 randomly selected black applicants who scored above 64. The court also ordered the city to count up the back pay and divide it among the rest of the applicants. But the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that decision.
City officials say they would have to hire about 111 applicants because a statute of limitations means one pool of applicants is no longer included. The city also has since hired others who were originally told they wouldn't get the chance to be firefighters.
Georges also said an age restriction won't be in place for those who might be hired because there wasn't one when the test was administered. Georges said applicants, who may now be in their 40s, would still have to attend the fire academy.