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It was five years ago when local attorney Richard Roberts agreed to take on a case involving the City of New Haven and a group of firefighters, a case Roberts never envisioned going as far as it has.
Now, that case has become national news and reached all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, even playing a prominent role in the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor.
“A case like this so novel, no one really has a lot of experience with anything like this,” Roberts said last week. “It was an unusual situation.”
The case, known as Ricci v. DeStefano, involved the City of New Haven and Mayor John DeStefano being sued for job discrimination in regards to a promotional exam. Firefighter Frank Ricci and 16 fellow firefighters filed the lawsuit against both the City and DeStefano in 2004 after they passed the exam, only to see the results thrown out by the city’s Civil Service Board after no African-Americans, who passed the exam, scored high enough to be considered for the promotions. Roberts was hired by the city’s insurance company to defend against the claims of racial discrimination by the 16 caucasian and one Hispanic firefighter.
The firefighters claimed that the city was in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 since it did not validate the test results.
The law prohibits the use of race as a decision in hiring or promotion, but also requires employers to scrap tests that produce disparate results among different races, unless the employer could prove that no discriminatory factors were a part of the test.
The City claimed it did not want to violate Title VII so it decided not to validate the tests, and the district court ruled in its favor in the fall of 2006. The firefighters then appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, where a three-judge panel, which included Sotomayor, agreed with the district court’s ruling in 2008. The last resort was for the complainants to appeal to the United States Supreme Court, which Roberts said was an unlikely thought back in 2004.
“The Supreme Court hears about 80 cases out of 10,000 every year, so obviously it was unusual,” Roberts admitted. “I have never had a case heard before the U.S. Supreme Court, that’s why I had to look for some help.”
While Roberts Cheshire based law firm, Nuzzo & Roberts, LLC, compiled briefings, New York law firm WilmerHale agreed to argue the case pro bono, led by attorney Christopher Meade.
“We worked on briefs, re-drafts, and editing,” Roberts explained. “I sat at the counsel table (at the Supreme Court), but only Chris spoke. The questions and the follow ups were all well thought out.”
After hearing arguments in April 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court made its ruling on June 29 and, in a 5-4 vote, reversed the rulings of the lower courts.
“After the case was argued, we went into a holding pattern and waited for two months,” Roberts said. “I know it was a high profile and unique case. I think the lawyers on both sides handled a tricky and complex issue.”
Roberts suggested that he “wasn’t surprised” that the case went to the Second Circuit on appeals, but the veteran attorney did admit that he never expected the case to go all the way to the highest court in the land. Roberts stated that many of the judges who heard the case believed the City was caught between a rock and a hard place and that the City ‘tried to take the high road and comply with Title VII” and that was the only motivation New Haven had in scraping the test results in 2004.
“Under the law, they could have been discriminating against the African-Americans,” Roberts said. “That was not the motivation. The motivation was to comply with the law.”
In the end, Roberts said the case “took up a great deal of time” for him and other lawyers at the firm, but it was “interesting and appealing” from the start. The fact that the matter was appealed and accepted to the Supreme Court was just another facet of the case that made it such a “rarity,” Roberts said.
“I love difficult, challenging, and interesting cases,” he said. “It was a real fascinating experience.”