March 27, 2012 Articles

Lessons Learned from Johnson v. City of Memphis

Avoiding discrimination and correcting past discrimination in promotional processes is an ongoing challenge.

Katie Kiernan Marble

Avoiding discrimination in promotional processes can be an ongoing challenge, and correcting past discrimination can take considerable time and resources. This difficulty is demonstrated by the protracted lawsuits against the City of Memphis for its promotional testing methods. “Since the early seventies the employment practices of the City of Memphis have frequently been challenged in court as discriminatory against African Americans and women.” Johnson v. City of Memphis (2006 Johnson), Nos. 00-2608 DP, 04-2017 DP, 04-2013 DP, 2006 WL 3827481, at *1 (W.D. Tenn. Dec. 28, 2006). Typically, these problems involved promotional procedures within the Memphis Police Department. In the early 2000s, the Memphis Police Department twice attempted to institute a nondiscriminatory promotional procedure for the promotion of patrol officers to the position of sergeant. Each time, the district court determined that these procedures had a disparate impact on minority candidates.

The Johnson v. City of Memphis litigation, challenging the two promotional processes, has been unfolding since 2000. The litigation includes three consolidated cases filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Tennessee, Western Division. Both the district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit have issued multiple decisions offering guidance to employers and employees alike with respect to the legalities of promotional practices. This article does not address every issue raised by the parties over the past decade of litigation, but it offers a brief overview of key issues, followed by practical lessons learned. It should be noted that at the time this article was submitted, the Johnson litigation was still ongoing and possibly facing an appeal from the defendant City of Memphis.

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