Seventh Circuit Holds that Chicago Fire Department Discriminated Against Female Applicants

Edgar M. Rivera, Esq.

On September 19, 2016, in Ernst v. City of Chicago, the Seventh Circuit held that the Chicago Fire Department failed to connect the physical skills for which it tested with the actual skills that its paramedics needed to perform the job.  

The Chicago Fire Department employs several hundred paramedics and, since 2000, Chicago has implemented a physical skills test when hiring new paramedics.  The plaintiffs argued that the physical skills test had a disparate impact on women, and that there was no evidence of Chicago paramedics ever lacking the physical ability to properly care for their patients.  Between 2000 and 2009, nearly 1,100 applicants took the physical skills test.  Among these, 800 were men, of whom 98% passed.  Another 300 were women, of whom only 60% passed. The plaintiffs’ brought two Title VII claims: disparate impact claimed decided by a bench trial and a disparate treatment claim decided by a jury trial.  The plaintiffs claimed that the physical skills test not only disproportionally hurt women’s chances of becoming paramedics, but it was intentionally implemented to keep women out.  The district court judge, however, ruled in favor of the Chicago on both claims, dismissing the action completely.

On appeal, the Seventh Circuit found that Chicago Fire Department failed to establish that the physical skills entrance test reflected “important elements of job performance.”  This lack of connection between real job skills and tested job skills was fatal to Chicago’s case.  Thus, the plaintiffs should have prevailed on the disparate impact claims, and circuit court reversed the trial verdict with instructions to enter judgment in the plaintiffs’ favor.

The Seventh Circuit also vacated the jury verdict in the disparate-treatment claim. The circuit court found that the jury instruction were fatally flawed because it failed to address the Chicago Fire Department’s motive for creating the test:

Here, the jury should have been instructed on the plaintiffs’ burden of proving that Chicago was motivated by anti-female bias, when Chicago created the entrance exam that caused these plaintiffs not to be hired.  Instead, jurors were instructed on a different burden, which failed to address Chicago’s motive for creating the skills test: “To determine that a Plaintiff was not hired because of her gender, you must decide that the City would have hired the Plaintiff had she been male but everything else had been the same.” This instruction focused on gender as a factor in the specific decisions not to hire these five plaintiffs, without expressly stating the mandatory question: whether Chicago had an anti-female motivation for creating its skills test.

The circuit court remanded the disparate-treatment claims for a new trial, with directions to use correct jury instructions.

The Chicago Fire Department has previously been accused of bias in its hiring. According to Reuters, Chicago paid $2 million in 2013 to settle claims that its physical skills test discriminated against women applying for firefighter jobs.
If you feel that you have been discriminated against at work because of your gender, please contact The Harman Firm, LLP.