Legal Attack on Biased Firefighter Tests

Teacher & Employment Testing

FairTest Examiner, May 2012

A U.S. District Court has ruled that New York City must pay up to $129 million to aspiring Black and Latino firefighters who lost out on jobs due to biased hiring tests. Judge Nicholas Garaufis also ordered NYC to hire nearly 300 minority firefighters who had taken the discriminatory exams. Soon thereafter, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) sued the city of Jacksonville, Florida over fire department promotion tests it said discriminated against African Americans. 

In the New York City case, the court had previously found that the entry level exams for firefighters were illegal under Title VII of the U.S. Civil Rights Act because they were racially discriminatory (Examiner, May 2010). Judge Garaufis concluded exam questions had “little relationship to the job of a firefighter.” The test, he said, “was not a one-time mistake or the product of benign neglect. It was part of a pattern, practice, and policy of intentional discrimination against black applicants that has deep historical antecedents and uniquely disabling effects.”

NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a backer of high-stakes testing for public schools as well as employment, said the financial award was unfair to the city. He vowed to appeal. But Judge Garaufis responded that the city had “many opportunities to avoid financial liabilities of this magnitude.” He added that the decision reflects the “consequences of the city’s decision to ignore clear violations of federal law.”

The lawsuit was brought by the Center for Constitutional Rights on behalf of the Vulcan Society, an advocacy organization for Black firefighters. Lead Counsel was Richard Levy. More details on the case, including court documents, are available here.

DOJ’s action against Jacksonville challenges tests used from 2004 to 2011 to determine qualifications for positions such as “fire suppression captain” and “engineer.” According to U.S. Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Thomas Perez, “At best, these tests measure only a slice of what is necessary to be a supervisor. But they stand in the way of qualified African-Americans advancing in the fire department.”

The recent cases may have national implications. As Perez noted after the Jacksonville filing, “This complaint should send a clear message . . . that employment practices that have the effect of excluding candidates on account of race will not be tolerated.” He continued, “The Justice Department will take all necessary action to ensure that such discriminatory practices are eliminated and that the victims of such practices are made whole.”

Last year, a federal court ordered Chicago to hire 111 Black firefighters denied work because of a racially biased exam. The city must also pay more than $45 million in compensation. In Houston, seven African Americans were promoted to captain after a similar lawsuit. The plaintiffs will also receive hundreds of thousands of dollars in back pay.