The Rights Stuff

Chicago attorney Matthew Piers is a big defender of the U.S. Constitution

Published in 2011 Illinois Super Lawyers — February 2011

Last spring, when the Supreme Court cleared the way for a discrimination suit by African-American firefighter applicants against the city of Chicago, no one was watching more closely than Matthew Piers. He has been working on the firefighters’ behalf for a decade.

The case is close to the Chicago native’s heart. Piers, 59, started his career in civil rights law, handling cases involving police misconduct, First Amendment law and criminal defense.

“I went to law school with an idea of participating in social change,” he says. A year after graduation, he founded “a little law firm” along with two colleagues. Today, he is a managing partner at a 32-lawyer firm, Hughes Socol Piers Resnick & Dym.

The firefighters’ case is back at the appeals court, where the Supreme Court sent it to clear up two remaining issues. The city could end up having to hire 132 passed-over candidates and pay more than $40 million to roughly 6,000 others.

In a nutshell: The Chicago Fire Department decided to hire only from the top scorers—the majority of whom were white—on its 1995 hiring test, eliminating many African Americans, though they had passed the exam. They filed a class action suit.

Piers was their lead attorney at the trial court.

“The courtroom was packed with class [lawsuit] members every day,” he recalls. “A lot of times, when you handle big cases, it’s lawyers, lawyers and judges, and the real people kind of get lost. These class members have never lost interest. So to connect with real people for whom the outcome really makes a difference—that’s tremendously gratifying.”

Piers argued that the pen-and-paper test could not have determined who would be a better firefighter, and that the city’s cutoff score disproportionately excluded African Americans.

“If your employment practices have the impact of discriminating, and they are not related to doing the job better, they’re illegal,” says Piers. The city acknowledged that its cutoff score unequally affected black applicants, but said the case should be thrown out because the claims were not filed within 300 days of the city’s announcement about how it would use the test.

But Piers’ team came up with a novel argument, based on the fact that the city kept using the 1995 exam results for several years when it hired firefighters. Piers contended that each of those hirings opened a new 300-day window for claims.

“We said that, every time the city went back to the list and picked only off the top, they used it in a discriminatory manner,” he says. The trial court agreed, and ruled that the city had to hire 132 of the firefighters. “Secondly,” adds Piers, “the court awarded back pay and pension adjustments, so the city was obligated to pay tens of millions of dollars.”

But the city appealed to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which reversed the lower court, saying there was only one discriminatory act and, therefore, the claims were filed too late.

That’s when Piers and team took the case to the nation’s highest court, which unanimously agreed that a new act of discrimination occurred every time the scores were used to hire firefighters.

Piers’ career has been built on 30 years of civil rights cases—and their respective history lessons. After graduating from the University of Chicago School of Law in 1974, he worked in a variety of legal environments, including a solo practice and a year as a Legal Aid lawyer, before landing at Hughes Socol.

An early case was the infamous “Spy Suit.” The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, along with other civil-liberties activists, sued the city of Chicago and the Chicago Police Department’s “Red Squad” intelligence unit in 1975, alleging it was spying on, and disrupting, community organizations for political reasons—and in violation of First Amendment rights. Piers, who was brought into the case in 1979, was asked to prepare it for trial before the federal court in Chicago.

“It was a time when there was a tremendous amount of community activism and demonstrations around equal opportunities, anti-war groups, urban-rural issues,” recalls Piers. “The organizations that we represented believed that the government had long since stopped worrying about where the [legal] line was. We gleaned massive amounts of files from the agencies that revealed a scary story … of government infiltration into organizations that were doing absolutely nothing illegal.”

The case settled, and as a result, says Piers, “From ’82 to the mid-’90s, Chicago had the strictest set of First Amendment protections with regard to government intelligence investigations of anyplace in the country.”

Piers helped organize a civil liberties conference, where he met U.S. Rep. Harold Washington, a progressive congressman from Chicago. When Washington became mayor of Chicago, he hired Piers as his head of litigation. Piers’ five-year stint etched his reputation in Chicago’s legal community.

Today, he says, “I tend to get referrals from other firms of complex things that require creativity. It makes for a fun practice.”

The case that really stands out for him had roots dating before he was born. During the labor shortage of World War II, the United States negotiated with the Mexican government to hire braceros—temporary laborers—to work in the fields and on the railroads.

“There had been this longstanding complaint of the braceros that 10 percent of their wages were withheld [by the Mexican government], then never paid to them,” says Piers, who filed a lawsuit in San Francisco. The case dragged on for nearly 10 years and was wrought with legal challenges, including parsing international treaty language—in which his team found a basis for proceeding with a suit against a foreign government.

Three years ago, the Mexican government agreed to pay $3,500 to each bracero or his surviving heir.

“Because the challenges were so big and working with these guys was such a thrill for me—I’m proudest of that one,” says Piers. “But I went to law school to do these kinds of things and I’ve been incredibly fortunate—it’s partly hard work; it’s partly luck.”

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