A panel for the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals recently required the City of Memphis (“City”) to immediately promote twenty-eight African American police officers to the rank of lieutenant.

Thirty-five African-American patrol officers filed suit alleging, in relevant part, that a sergeant’s exam had a disparate impact under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”), causing a failure to promote minority officers. Although the District Court found the sergeant’s exam valid and reliable, the Court found a violation of Title VII because less discriminatory alternatives were available. The Court ordered all minority plaintiffs to be promoted to the rank of sergeant.

In August 2007, the City announced that it would hold a make-up promotional exam for the rank of lieutenant. The plaintiffs moved for a preliminary injunction, requiring the City to allow them to take the exam, even though they had not actually held the position of sergeant for two years. The District Court granted the injunction based upon its finding of prior discrimination, which it deemed an “exceptional circumstance.” The Sixth Circuit affirmed the injunction finding, in relevant part, the plaintiffs would suffer irreparable injury, namely, the loss of valuable work experience and opportunities to compete for other promotions.

The Sixth Circuit’s ruling offers two pearls of wisdom for employers:

  • First, employers should carefully review their promotional process to determine whether there is an unanticipated effect of excluding minority candidates.
  • Second, consider whether other less discriminatory alternatives are available and whether any process needs to be amended.

Due to the potential legal ramifications, employers are best advised to consult with legal counsel to evaluate a current promotional process or when implementing a new promotional system.

For a more detailed summary of Johnson v. City of Memphis, please check out the Squire Sanders Sixth Circuit Appellate Blog.