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Judge Rules New York City Fire Department Exams Showed Racial Bias

July 28, 2009
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The New York City Fire Department’s reliance on two written firefighter exams constituted employment discrimination against minorities in violation of civil rights law, said a federal district court judge in a ruling Wednesday, July 22.

The federal government; the Vulcan Society Inc., a black firefighters organization; and three other plaintiffs had sued the fire department, claiming the city’s use of the two tests had a disparate impact on black and Hispanic candidates in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Judge Nicholas G. Garaufis of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York in Brooklyn agreed and granted summary judgment in favor of the plaintiffs. He noted in his 93-page decision that while 25 percent of the city’s residents are black and 27 percent Hispanic—as of 2007, when the litigation began—they accounted for just 3.4 percent and 6.7 percent, respectively, of firefighters.

The judge said in his decision that it is “natural to assume that the best performers on an employment test must be the best people for the job. But the significance of these principles is undermined when an examination is not fair.”

The city “did not take sufficient measures to ensure that better performers on its examinations would actually be better firefighters.”

The proceedings have been bifurcated, and Judge Garaufis said he will subsequently determine an “appropriate remedy.”

A New York City spokeswoman said the city will decide whether to appeal once the judge issues this second ruling in the case.

In addition, Georgia Pestana, chief of the labor and employment division of New York City’s law department, said in a statement that she disagrees with the decision. She said the city since has developed a new test that was administered in 2007 and that, combined with an outreach effort, has resulted in minorities now constituting 38 percent of the candidates on the passing list.

Judge Garaufis noted in his opinion also that the legal issue before his court was different from the one decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in Frank Ricci et al. v. John DeStefano et al., in which the city of Hartford, Connecticut, had rejected a promotion exam out of fear it would be sued for discrimination by minority candidates.

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in that case in favor of 18 firefighters—17 white and one Hispanic—who had brought the suit.


Filed by Judy Greenwald of Business Insurance, a sister publication of Workforce Management. To comment, e-mail editors@workforce.com.

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