Tag: disparate treatment

Between the Scylla of Disparate Impact and the Charybdis of Disparate Treatment

If federal statutory law expressly commands that all covered federal employees shall be “free from any discrimination based on … race,” does that forbid the federal government from adopting race-based affirmative action plans? That is one of the important—and seemingly obvious—questions posed by Shea v. Kerry, a case brought by our friends at the Pacific Legal Foundation. William Shea is a white State Department Foreign Service Officer. In 1990, he applied for his Foreign Service Officer position and began working in 1992 at a junior-level post. At the time, the State Department operated a voluntary affirmative action plan (read: voluntary as “mandated by Congress”) whereby minorities were able to bypass the junior levels and enter the mid-level service. The State Department attempted to justify its racial plan by noting that there were statistical imbalances at the senior Foreign Service levels, even though the path to the senior levels is unrelated to service at the lower levels.

In 2001, Shea filed an administrative complaint against the State Department for its disparate treatment of white applicants under its 1990-92 hiring plan, complaining that he did not enter at as high a grade as he may have and that the discrimination cost him in both advancement opportunities and earnings. After exhausting administrative remedies, Shea took his complaint to the courts, resulting in this case. The Cato Institute has joined with the Southeastern Legal Foundation, the Center for Equal Opportunity, and the National Association of Scholars to file an amici curiae brief calling for the Supreme Court to take up the case and reverse the federal appellate court below.

In fairness to the court below, Title VII jurisprudence, as it stands, is both unclear and unworkable. The text of Title VII expressly prohibits discrimination on the basis of race—what’s called “disparate treatment.” Indeed, in the specific provisions on federal hiring, Title VII employs very expansive language to ensure that disparate treatment is not permitted. But such a “literal construction” of the Title VII statute was eschewed by Justice William Brennan in 1979, writing for the Court in United Steelworkers v. Weber. Relying on cherry-picked statutory history, Brennan found that Title VII’s plain text did not prohibit collectively bargained, voluntary affirmative action programs that attempt to remedy disparate impact—statistical imbalances in the racial composition of employment groups—even if such plans used quota systems. Later, in Johnson v. Transportation Agency, Santa Clara County, Cal. (1987), the Court exacerbated the issue by extending the Weber rule from purely private hiring to municipal hiring. In Shea, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit extended the rule from Johnson and Weber to federal hiring, not just municipal and private employment.

Building Housing That Some People Can’t Afford Isn’t Racist

“Disparate impact” theory holds someone liable for discrimination for a race-neutral policy that statistically disadvantages a specific racial group — say, blacks score lower on a firefighter-promotion test than whites — even if that negative “impact” was neither foreseen nor intended. The application of this theory has been fraught with controversy, to say the least, but it comes up again and again, in contexts ranging from employment to education to voting.

While disparate impact claims have sometimes been sustained under the federal Fair Housing Act (which makes it unlawful to deny housing on the basis of race) since the 1970s, the Supreme Court has only recently agreed to decide whether these claims are lawful. Two years ago, the Court was about to hear such a case, Magner v. Gallagher, when the Justice Department, led by now-Labor Secretary Tom Perez, pressured the city of St. Paul, Minnesota to settle it. The same sort of political pressure is now being brought to bear on Mount Holly Township, New Jersey; supporters of disparate impact theory simply don’t think that it can survive legal scrutiny.

The current case involves a redevelopment plan for a blighted Mount Holly neighborhood (“the Gardens”) that would transform the neighborhood into mid-range single-family dwellings. (Thus far, the township has acquired 259 of 329 properties through various financial incentives, without yet resorting to eminent domain.) The Gardens’ residents sued, arguing that the redevelopment plan violated the FHA because a majority of them would not be able to afford the new homes.

The district court dismissed this argument, holding that the redevelopment plan affected Gardens residents equally, without regard to race, and was tied only to economic considerations. The court of appeals reversed that ruling, holding that the residents’ association had set out a case of discrimination under the theory of disparate impact because a majority of the affected residents were non-white.

Cato has now joined the Pacific Legal Foundation and four other public-interest organizations on an amicus brief arguing not only that disparate impact claims are impermissible under the text of the FHA, but that such claims force unconstitutional actions when applied to governments. Before putting race-neutral policies into effect, government agencies would have to determine whether a particular racial group would be disproportionately impacted and take steps to remedy that difference. By mandating an equality of ends — as opposed to an equality of opportunity — disparate impact liability encourages the adoption of discriminatory quota systems.

Lower Courts Have to Comply with Supreme Court Orders

In the 2009 case of Ricci v. DeStefano (also known as the “New Haven firefighters case,” in which Cato filed a brief), the Supreme Court declared that an employer that did not certify race-neutral promotion-exam results could be liable to the candidates who were not promoted as a result (because those candidates would have been discriminated against based on their race, or “disparate treatment” in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act). A corollary to that holding is that an employer that did certify such results would be immune from liability for any resulting racial disparities in promotion (known as “disparate-impact” claims under Title VII).

As Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the Court majority, “If, after it certifies the results, the City faces a disparate-impact suit, then in light of our holding today it should be clear that the City would avoid disparate-impact liability based on the strong basis in evidence that, had it not certified the results, it would have been subject to disparate–treatment liability.”

Despite this clear guidance from the Supreme Court, one of the black New Haven firefighters who did not gain promotion as a result of the test certification sued the city, alleging disparate-impact discrimination. The district court dismissed his claim but the Second Circuit inexplicably reversed that ruling and reinstated the lawsuit – considering Ricci’s corollary holding (quoted above) to be non-binding.

Cato has now filed a short brief supporting New Haven’s request that the Supreme Court review that decision – and perhaps even reverse it summarily – arguing that Title VII’s provisions are complex and onerous enough, such that employers should not be subject to liability for following court orders.

The Court will decide later this spring what to do with this case of City of New Haven v. Briscoe.