Ricci v. DeStefano

Following is the case brief for Ricci v. DeStefano, 129 S. Ct. 2658 (2009)

Case Summary of Ricci v. DeStefano:

  • The New Haven, CT Fire Department held an exam for firefighter promotions.  The exam resulted in white candidates significantly outperforming minority candidates.
  • Facing potential lawsuits from both sides, New Haven refused to certify the exam results.  That decision meant that qualified firefighter candidates did not receive promotions.
  • A group of white and hispanic firefighters sued in federal court, alleging racial discrimination under Title VII.  The lower federal courts denied the group relief.
  • The Supreme Court reversed the lower courts’ decisions.  It held that New Haven did not have a strong basis in evidence to justify discriminating against the group of white and hispanic firefighters by refusing to certify the exam results.

Ricci v. DeStefano Case Brief

Statement of the Facts:

The New Haven, CT (the “City”) Fire Department used standardized exams to identify firefighters who should be promoted to vacant lieutenant and captain positions.  The exam results showed that white candidates did better than minority candidates.  Faced with testimony both in favor of and against certifying the exam results, and faced with the threat of a lawsuit from both sides of the debate, the City decided not to certify the results because of the racial disparity.

Petitioners, white and hispanic firefighters who were denied the chance at a promotion because the results were not certified, sued in Federal District Court.  They alleged that they suffered discrimination based on race in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Procedural History:

  • The District Court granted summary judgment in favor of the City.
  • The Second Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court’s decision.
  • The Supreme Court granted certiorari.

Issue and Holding:

Did New Haven discriminate against white and hispanic firefighters by refusing to certify exam results that showed that white candidates outperformed minority candidates?  Yes.


The judgment of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals is reversed and remanded.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

Under Title VII, a public employer cannot institute a race-based policy that discriminates against white employees unless it can show a strong basis in evidence that it would be liable for unintentional discrimination of minority employees by using a race-neutral policy.


Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is designed to address intentional employment discrimination (disparate treatment), and employment policies that unintentionally disadvantage minorities (disparate impact).  In this case, the City’s exam appears to have unintentionally disadvantaged minorities — a disparate impact.  Thus, the City’s objective in refusing to certify the exam results was to avoid disparate-impact liability.  However, by so doing, the City actually engaged in intentional discrimination against white firefighters — disparate treatment.

  • The “Strong Basis in Evidence” standard.

In order to strike a balance to satisfying what may be conflicting directives in Title VII, Court precedent suggests the following standard:  an employer cannot favor racial minorities (i.e., engage in disparate treatment) unless and until it has “a strong basis in evidence” that a racial-neutral policy will have a disparate impact on those minorities.

  • The City did not satisfy the “Strong Basis in Evidence” standard.

Here, the City did not satisfy the “strong basis in evidence” standard.  While the exam’s adverse impact on minorities was significant, there was no strong basis in evidence to conclude that (i) the exam was not appropriately job-related, or (ii) there was an equally valid, less discriminatory exam that the City refused to use.

Fear of litigation alone cannot justify engaging in disparate treatment of the mostly non-minority firefighters who passed the exam and qualified for promotions.  The Court need not discuss Petitioner’s equal protection argument because the matter is resolved under Title VII.

Concurring and Dissenting Opinions:

Concurring Opinion (Scalia):

While the Court did not have to address the issue in this case, there will come a day when the Court will have to determine whether Title VII’s disparate-impact provisions are consistent with the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause.  Stated differently, if in this case the City did satisfy the “strong basis in evidence” standard, then the City would have been justified in favoring minorities over whites.  That, however, would be a violation of the Equal Protection Clause.

Concurring Opinion (Alito):

The dissent appears to leave out important parts of the history of this case.  Including those parts would make the dissent’s conclusion untenable.

Dissenting Opinion (Ginsburg):

The Court’s analysis ignores substantial flaws in the firefighter exam, and better tests used in other cities that had less racially-skewed outcomes.  Further, the Court failed to acknowledge the vital significance of the disparate-impact concept in the effective enforcement of Title VII. Accordingly, because of the Court’s decision, a city that has nearly a 60% minority population will be see a fire department with few minorities in command positions.


Ricci v. DeStefano is significant because it appears to demonstrate the recent Court’s desire to roll back affirmative-action-type policies in the public employment realm.  That was the result of this case, even when faced with, as Justice Ginsburg noted, an outcome where the leadership of the City’s fire department did not reflect the racial makeup of the City itself.

Student Resources: