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Firefighters Local Union No. v. Stotts (1784 )


The Supreme Court refused to allow a program to remedy discrimination by discriminating against a group with seniority.

Affirmative action in the United States has been a political issue since the Civil War. The concept originated with the provision of clothing, land, and education for newly freed slaves. The actual term "affirmative action," however, did not appear until the presidency of John F. Kennedy. The Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity was established by Kennedy's executive order to ensure African Americans could compete for government contracts and employment. President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which was established to end discrimination by private employers, whether or not they were government contractors. Under President Richard Nixon, specific requirements for enforcing contract compliance for affirmative action were developed. These requirements include analyzing the employment of minorities and women in job categories and developing goals and timetables for each category in which minorities and women are underrepresented. Affirmative action, according to the Civil Rights Commission, refers to any action or program which allows the consideration of race, national origin, sex, or disability, along with other criteria. It is used to provide opportunities to a class of qualified persons who have been historically denied those opportunities.

Titles VI and VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 form the legislative basis for equal employment opportunity laws and affirmative action programs. Under Title VII, federal courts were given the authority to order employers to implement race- or gender-conscious affirmative action programs. Firefighters v. Stotts was one of the first of these court-ordered cases. A group of African American firefighters sued the fire department of Memphis, Tennessee for racial discrimination in hiring and promotion. The outcome was that the Memphis Fire Department and the firefighters group agreed to a court-approved settlement called a "consent decree" which was an affirmative action plan aimed at remedying the discrimination. The firefighters union, however, had previously negotiated a policy of "last hired, first fired" meaning that in the case of a layoff, firefighters with less seniority would be let go first.

Later, the minority firefighters group appealed to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee to prevent Memphis from using this system since it would impact the gains they had made in the consent decree. The district court agreed with the firefighters and ordered that layoffs should be made in a way that would not impact the affirmative action plan, but as a result would violate the established seniority system. The firefighters union appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals but lost when the court agreed with the district court's actions.

The union then asked the Supreme Court to review the case, also known as taking the case on certiorari. On 12 June 1984, the Court reversed the lower courts' decisions. Justice White wrote the opinion, supported by Justices Burger, Powell, Rehnquist, and O'Connor. The court stated that because Title VII specifically protects seniority systems (such as the one negotiated by the union) and because the union was not involved in the affirmative action consent decree, the district court had overstepped its boundaries in ordering the injunction. They also interpreted Title VII to state that a court could only give competitive seniority to employees who had actually suffered intentional discrimination. Since the minority firefighters case did not include mention of intentional discrimination, the Court interpreted that any discrimination was unintentional.

Justices Blackmun, Brennan, and Marshall disagreed, arguing that the action was moot since, a month after the layoffs, all laid-off non-minority employees were restored to duty and demoted non-minority employees were offered their previous positions. As a result, the Supreme Court would lack jurisdiction over the case.

Following the Supreme Court's ruling, the Justice Department, under President Ronald Reagan, asked states and cities to get rid of numerical goals in hiring or promoting women and minorities. Since the court had interpreted the intention of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to be remedying past discrimination against individuals as opposed to entire classes of people, the department felt numerical goals were inappropriate. This was seen widely as a blow to the goals of affirmative action.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1981 to 1988Firefighters Local Union No. v. Stotts (1784 ) - Significance, Further Readings