Ricci v. DeStefano
557 U.S. 557 (2009)

The City of New Haven needed to fill vacant lieutenant and captain positions in its fire department. The city charter required a merit based system where only the most qualified would get the positions. The City then hired a company to design and administer the exam. The scores came back, and had the City selected those who scored the highest, there wouldn’t have been any black candidates.

  • As a result, and out of fear of a claim of disparate impact against them, the City didn’t certify the exams.
  • 17 white firefighters and 1 Hispanic sued under Title VII for disparate treatment, more specifically, reverse discrimination.


  • The District Court granted summary judgment for the defendants.
  • Court of Appeals affirmed.

When does the purpose to avoid disparate-impact liability excuse what otherwise would be prohibited disparate-treatment discrimination?

Before an employer can engage in intentional discrimination for the asserted purpose of avoiding or remedying an unintentional disparate impact, the employer must have a strong basis in evidence to believe it will be subject to disparate-impact liability if it fails to take the race-conscious, discriminatory action.

  • Here, there was not a strong basis to believe there would be liability because a prima facie case of disparate-impact liability—essentially, a threshold showing of a significant statistical disparity, and nothing more—is not enough.
    • The City could be liable for disparate-impact discrimination only if the examinations were not ‘job related and consistent with business necessity,’ or if there existed an equally valid, less-discriminatory alternative that served the City’s needs but that the City refused to adopt.
    • The process was open and fair, qualifications and experience were thought about in neutral ways, and there was no evidence that the tests weren’t job related.