Simpson v. Dart, No. 21-8028 (7th Cir. 2022)

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Justia Opinion Summary

Simpson unsuccessfully applied to work as a Correctional Officer at the Cook County Department of Corrections four times in 2014-2017. Simpson believed the hiring practices underlying those rejections violated his rights—and those of other unsuccessful Black applicants—under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. 2000e-2(a)(1). Invoking disparate treatment and disparate impact theories, Simpson’s class action complaint alleged that, through the use of a five-step hiring process for correctional officers, the Department both intended to discriminate against Black applicants and succeeded in producing that result. The district court denied Simpson’s motion for class certification, finding that none of his proposed classes—a general class of all unsuccessful applicants and five subclasses of candidates dismissed at each step of the hiring process—satisfied Rule 23(a)(2)’s requirement that they present “questions of law or fact common to the class.”

The Seventh Circuit vacated. The district court’s analysis apparently merged Simpson’s disparate impact claims with his disparate treatment claims for intentional discrimination. While disparate treatment claims may require a more searching commonality inquiry, disparate impact claims most often will not: the common questions are whether the challenged policy has in fact disparately impacted the plaintiff class and, if so, whether that disparate impact is justified by business necessity. The court did not clearly delineate its reasoning for declining to certify three of Simpson’s disparate impact subclasses.

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In the United States Court of Appeals For the Seventh Circuit ____________________ No. 21-8028 JOSEPH SIMPSON, et al., Plaintiffs-Petitioners, v. THOMAS J. DART, et al., Defendants-Respondents. ____________________ Petition for Permission to Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 1:18-cv-00553 — Sharon Johnson Coleman, Judge. ____________________ SUBMITTED SEPTEMBER 27, 2021 — DECIDED JANUARY 6, 2022 ____________________ Before EASTERBROOK, WOOD, and SCUDDER, Circuit Judges. SCUDDER, Circuit Judge. Joseph Simpson applied to work as a Correctional O cer at the Cook County Department of Corrections four separate times between 2014 and 2017. The Department declined to hire him each time. Simpson believed the hiring practices underlying these rejections violated his rights—and those of other unsuccessful Black applicants—under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Invoking 2 No. 21-8028 theories of both disparate treatment and disparate impact, Simpson’s class action complaint alleged that, through the use of a ve-step hiring process for correctional o cers, the Department of Corrections both intended to discriminate against Black applicants and succeeded in producing that discriminatory result. The district court denied Simpson’s motion for class certi cation, nding that none of his proposed classes—a general class of all unsuccessful applicants and ve subclasses of candidates dismissed at each step of the hiring process—satis ed Rule 23(a)(2)’s requirement that they present “questions of law or fact common to the class.” But the district court’s analysis seems at times to have con ated and merged Simpson’s disparate impact claims with his disparate treatment claims for intentional discrimination. While disparate treatment claims may require a more searching commonality inquiry along the lines of that performed by the district court, disparate impact claims most often will not: the common questions are whether the challenged policy has in fact disparately impacted the plainti class and, if so, whether that disparate impact is justi ed by business necessity. Because the district court’s analysis did not clearly delineate its reasoning for declining to certify three of Simpson’s subclasses on a disparate impact theory, we grant Simpson’s petition for Rule 23(f) review, vacate the denial of class certi cation as to these three subclasses, and remand to allow the district court to reconsider whether they should be certi ed. No. 21-8028 3 I A The Cook County Sheri ’s O ce oversees all operations at the Cook County Department of Corrections, including the hiring of correctional o cers. That hiring authority is delegated in large part to an administrative body within the Sheri ’s O ce known as the Cook County Sheri ’s Merit Board, although the Sheri ’s O ce itself makes the nal hiring decision. Both entities—the Sheri ’s O ce (through Sheri Thomas J. Dart in his o cial capacity) and the Merit Board— are defendants in this case, as is Cook County itself. The Department of Corrections considers applicants by employing a ve-step hiring process. Applicants may be eliminated from contention at any step. The Merit Board controls the rst four steps—(1) an initial written exam; (2) a written situational exam; (3) a physical tness test; and (4) a more discretionary “ nal review,” which itself appears to consist of a background check, drug testing, and multiple interviews. Applicants who successfully complete each step are certi ed by the Merit Board as “eligible for hire” and proceed to step (5), a discretionary “ le review” (and a polygraph test) conducted by the Sheri ’s O ce, which then makes the nal hiring decision. Simpson’s complaint alleged that the defendants instituted and implemented this multistep process to discriminate against Black applicants. See 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1) (imposing liability on employers who “fail or refuse to hire … any individual … because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin”). The complaint alternatively alleged that, regardless of the defendants’ intent, the policies 4 No. 21-8028 did in fact disparately impact Black applicants, who were purportedly hired at signi cantly lower rates than white applicants. See id. § 2000e-2(k)(1)(A)(i) (prohibiting the use of “a particular employment practice that causes a disparate impact on the basis of race, color, sex, or national origin” and that is not “job related for the position in question and consistent with business necessity”). In discovery, Simpson produced statistical evidence that he believes proves that, at each of the ve steps of the hiring process, Black applicants received rejections more often than white applicants. B Simpson rst moved to certify just one class of all unsuccessful Black applicants dating back to March of 2015. He later sought to add ve subclasses for candidates rejected at each of the ve challenged steps of the hiring process. The district court permitted Simpson to amend his complaint to add these proposed subclasses before it considered the motion for class certi cation. The defendants had a full and fair opportunity to oppose class certi cation. The district court acknowledged that Simpson’s proposed classes alleged violations based on theories of both “disparate impact and discriminatory intent.” In denying the certi cation motion “in its entirety,” the court’s analysis focused solely on Rule 23(a)(2)’s “commonality” requirement—that there must exist “questions of law or fact common to the class.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(a)(2). As to each of Simpson’s proposed classes under both his disparate impact and disparate treatment theories, the court determined that no such common questions existed—a nding preventing certi cation. At no point, though, did the district court di erentiate or No. 21-8028 5 separate its analysis of Simpson’s disparate impact claims from its consideration of his disparate treatment claims. Simpson has not sought review of the district court’s refusal to certify either the original combined class or the subclasses for steps (4) and (5) of the hiring process—the Merit Board’s nal review and the Sheri ’s O ce’s le review. He instead seeks interlocutory review only as to the subclasses for steps (1), (2), and (3)—the initial written exam, the written situational exam, and the physical tness test. We refer to these together as the exam subclasses. The district court analyzed steps (1) and (2), the two written exams, together and found that the class plainti s had “made little e ort to establish that these standardized tests are racially biased.” The court observed that these tests had “been validated in other jurisdictions and by agencies throughout the country.” And while the plainti s had presented statistical evidence indicating that Black applicants were rejected at higher rates than white applicants at both steps, the district court discredited this evidence because it “did not control for any racially neutral factors.” The district court’s analysis of step (3), the physical tness test, was much the same. The court found that the plainti s had failed to “present evidence that the physical ability test was administered in a raciallybiased manner,” and instead pointed only to statistical disparities in the pass rates for white and Black applicants. With his motion for class certi cation denied in its entirety, Simpson invoked Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(f) and sought our review. He contends that the district court erred in nding that, as applied to the three exam subclasses, his disparate impact claims did not present a common question capable of classwide determination. 6 No. 21-8028 II Promulgated by the Supreme Court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1292(e), Rule 23(f) grants courts of appeals discretion to “permit an appeal from an order granting or denying classaction certi cation.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(f). We have often exercised that discretion where “deciding the appeal would clarify class action law.” Driver v. AppleIllinois, LLC, 739 F.3d 1073, 1076 (7th Cir. 2014) (citing Blair v. Equifax Check Servs., Inc., 181 F.3d 832, 835 (7th Cir. 1999) (explaining that the exercise of Rule 23(f) review is appropriate where “an appeal may facilitate the development of the law”)). This is such a case. So we grant Simpson’s petition and vacate the district court’s judgment as to the three exam subclasses, making two observations to help inform the district court’s analysis on remand. A First, Rule 23(a) enumerates four—and only four—requirements for class certi cation: numerosity, commonality, typicality, and adequacy of representation. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(a)(1)–(4). Likelihood of success on the merits is not among them. See Payton v. County of Kane, 308 F.3d 673, 677 (7th Cir. 2002). From there a class must fall within one of three permissible “types of class actions” set out in Rule 23(b). And if a class plainti satis es all the requirements of Rule 23(a) and Rule 23(b), the class must be certi ed, even if it is sure to fail on the merits. See Shady Grove Orthopedic Assocs., P.A. v. Allstate Ins. Co., 559 U.S. 393, 399–400 (2010) (explaining that, “in each and every case where the Rule’s criteria are met,” the plainti “may bring his claim in a class action if he wishes”) (cleaned up). Put another way, properly certi ed classes can lose as well as win. See Bennett v. Dart, 953 F.3d 467, 469 (7th Cir. 2020); Schleicher v. Wendt, 618 F.3d 679, 686 (7th Cir. 2010). No. 21-8028 7 To be sure, the Supreme Court has recognized that the “rigorous analysis” required at the class certi cation stage may “entail some overlap with the merits of the plainti ’s underlying claim.” Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, 564 U.S. 338, 351 (2011). But the Court has also taken care to emphasize that “[m]erits questions may be considered to the extent—but only to the extent—that they are relevant to determining whether the Rule 23 prerequisites for class certi cation are satis ed.” Amgen Inc. v. Conn. Ret. Plans & Tr. Funds, 568 U.S. 455, 466 (2013). Put most simply, “Rule 23 grants courts no license to engage in free-ranging merits inquiries at the certi cation stage.” Id. Front and center here is the second of Rule 23(a)’s four requirements—commonality. A plainti may represent a class only if “there are questions of law or fact common to the class.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(a)(2). A Title VII plainti can establish liability on a disparate impact theory by pointing to an employment policy that “causes racial discrimination” and “is not justi ed by business necessity.” McReynolds v. Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith, Inc., 672 F.3d 482, 489 (7th Cir. 2012); see also Ricci v. DeStefano, 557 U.S. 557, 577–78 (2009). To certify a disparate impact class, then, the plainti ’s claims as to those three elements must be based on “common contention[s]” that are “capable of classwide resolution.” WalMart, 564 U.S. at 350. The rst element—identifying a discrete employment policy to challenge—often presents di culties for proposed disparate impact classes. In Wal-Mart, where the only “policy” the plainti s identi ed was one of “allowing discretion” in hiring decisions, the Court recognized the need for some merits inquiry at the class certi cation stage: a court must know 8 No. 21-8028 how that discretion is exercised to know whether there exists “a common mode of exercising discretion that pervades the entire company.” Id. at 355–56. In the end, the Court concluded that because the plainti s could not show that WalMart supervisors exercised their challenged discretion in a common way, “it [would] be impossible to say that examination of all the class members’ claims for relief will produce a common answer to the crucial question why was I disfavored.” Id. at 352 (emphasis in original). This di culty may have doomed certi cation of Simpson’s subclasses (4) and (5), as both the Merit Board’s nal review and the Sheri ’s O ce’s le review processes seem to involve multiple decisionmakers exercising discretion in various unknown ways. We need not decide the issue, because Simpson has limited his petition to subclasses (1), (2), and (3)—the three exam subclasses. And those subclasses, it seems, concern challenges not to the exercise of discretion by multiple actors but to the uniform administration of standardized tests to each putative class member. This sort of “single [companywide] policy was the missing ingredient in WalMart.” Bolden v. Walsh Constr. Co., 688 F.3d 893, 898 (7th Cir. 2012); see McReynolds, 672 F.3d at 490. But it may not be missing here. Where, as here, a plainti identi es a discrete employment policy that allegedly results in discrimination, Title VII disparate impact claims are well suited for classwide adjudication: the policy either disparately impacted the plainti class or it did not. To put it even more in terms of this case, once Simpson has identi ed the three challenged exams, the ensuing Rule 23 analysis requires no inquiry into the merits to determine that the remaining two elements of his disparate No. 21-8028 9 impact claims almost necessarily present questions common to the class—whether those exams in fact caused a disparate impact and, if so, whether the use of the exams was justi ed by business necessity. See McReynolds, 672 F.3d at 489 (observing that “whether [the challenged policy] causes racial discrimination and whether it nonetheless is justi ed by business necessity are issues common to the entire class and therefore appropriate for class-wide determination”). Accordingly, the district court’s analysis was not “limited to those aspects of the merits that a ect the decisions essential under Rule 23.” Dancel v. Groupon, Inc., 949 F.3d 999, 1005 (7th Cir. 2019) (quoting Schleicher, 618 F.3d at 685). To assess whether Simpson’s claims presented common questions, the district court did not need to consider whether Simpson’s statistical experts controlled for racially neutral factors or whether the tests had been validated for use at other departments. These considerations go not to commonality but instead to whether the exam subclasses can ultimately succeed on the merits. We cannot know at this stage. But what we can say is that, as to each subclass, the answer seems likely to be the same for each class member. That is all that Rule 23(a)(2) requires. See Wal-Mart, 564 U.S. at 352; In re Allstate Corp. Securities Litig., 966 F.3d 595, 604 (7th Cir. 2020) (“At class certi cation, the issue is not whether plainti s will be able to prove these elements on the merits, but only whether their proof will be common for all plainti s, win or lose.”). B That brings us to our second observation. Some of the confusion in the district court’s opinion appears to stem from not separating its analysis of Simpson’s disparate impact claims from its assessment of his disparate treatment claims. 10 No. 21-8028 The claims are not one and the same. Indeed, today they root themselves in di erent provisions of Title VII. See 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1) (disparate treatment); id. § 2000e-2(k)(1)(A)(i) (disparate impact). Commonality may be harder to establish for disparate treatment claims, as those claims require “proof of intentional discrimination, which is not an element of a disparate impact claim.” McReynolds, 672 F.3d at 483. Simpson has not petitioned for review of the class certi cation decision as to his disparate treatment claims. Accordingly, we can assume without deciding that it was reasonable for the district court to nd that Simpson had not shown that the question of intent was a common one that would yield a common answer across each proposed class. See Messner v. Northshore Univ. HealthSystem, 669 F.3d 802, 811 (7th Cir. 2012) (“Plainti s bear the burden of showing that a proposed class satis es the Rule 23 requirements … by a preponderance of the evidence.”) (citations omitted). Even so, class certi cation is not an all-or-nothing proposition. Certi cation may be appropriate as to some of the class’s claims but not others. This observation ows from the text of Rule 23 itself: an order certifying a class “must de ne the class and the class claims, issues, or defenses.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(c)(1)(B) (emphasis added). If a class’s de nition was synonymous with its claims, this language would be super uous. Instead, the “class” takes its de nition from the people in it and the period of time during which the relevant conduct occurred, and the “class claims” are the legal claims for which the class satis es all of Rule 23’s certi cation requirements. See Wachtel ex rel. Jesse v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of America, 453 F.3d 179, 187–88 (3d Cir. 2006) (holding that a Rule 23(c)(1)(B) No. 21-8028 11 certi cation order must include two elements: “(1) a readily discernible, clear, and precise statement of the parameters de ning the class or classes to be certi ed, and (2) a readily discernible, clear, and complete list of the claims, issues or defenses to be treated on a class basis”). Sometimes those requirements may be satis ed as to some of the class representative’s claims but not others. Only the former become “class claims.” See Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(c)(4) (“When appropriate, an action may be brought or maintained as a class action with respect to particular issues.”). So the fact that the district court found that Simpson could not show that, as to the three exam subclasses, his disparate treatment claims were “capable of classwide resolution,” Wal-Mart, 564 U.S. at 350, does not mean that the same must be true for his disparate impact claims. For their part, the defendants insist that the district court’s failure to separate the disparate impact and disparate treatment claims is Simpson’s own fault. Simpson, they say, con ated his disparate impact and disparate treatment theories and focused his e orts primarily on the latter. The defendants therefore ask us to nd the disparate impact claims waived. We decline to do so. Simpson’s disparate impact claims have been in this case since its inception, and he briefed them in his motion for class certi cation. Nothing prevents a Title VII plainti from alleging both that a challenged policy caused a disparate impact and that it was intended to do so. And the district court recognized that Simpson had done just that, calling his claim one for “disparate impact and discriminatory intent.” 12 No. 21-8028 But the district court’s analysis did not re ect that recognition. When conducting class certi cation analyses, district courts should assess the four Rule 23(a) factors as to each of the putative class claims. See Santiago v. City of Chicago, 19 F.4th 1010, 1017 (7th Cir. 2021) (vacating a class certi cation order where the district court “analyzed the proposed classes under each provision [of Rule 23], but never made clear which claims the analyses refer to”). A one size (or one claim) approach is at odds with the “rigorous analysis” required at the class certi cation stage. Wal-Mart, 564 U.S. at 351. Instead, as we recently explained, a district court should begin by identifying the elements of the plainti ’s various claims: “[o]nly by properly circumscribing the claims and breaking them down into their constituent elements can a district court decide which issues are common, individual, and predominant.” Santiago, 19 F.4th at 1018. * * * We GRANT Simpson’s petition, VACATE the denial of class certi cation in part, and REMAND for the district court to reconsider certi cation of the three exam subclasses in light of our observations and the remaining Rule 23 factors. Whether Simpson’s three exam subclasses will ultimately merit certi cation is a question for the district court to answer in the rst instance.
Primary Holding
In a Title VII disparate impact case, the Seventh Circuit vacates the denial of class certification.

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