Same case, different race.
On Thursday, New Haven firefighter Michael Briscoe filed a federal lawsuit against City Hall officials, claiming that New Haven’s 2003 firefighter promotional exam had a “disparate impact” on blacks and unjustly denied him promotion to lieutenant. Briscoe’s suit comes less than four months after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that throwing out the same test unfairly discriminated against a group of 20 mostly white firefighters.
No black firefighters scored high enough on the test to qualify for a promotion. The city, fearing the black firefighters would sue, decided not to certify those results. The Supreme Court ruled that action unjustified, and now the black firefighters are indeed suing.
New Haven Corporation Counsel Victor Bolden said Thursday that City Hall officials will still push to certify the 2003 results, which would keep Briscoe ineligible for promotion.
“The city does not want to get mired in the past,” he said.
But the lawyer who brought the Supreme Court case, Karen Torre, said in a statement that Briscoe’s motion could complicate her case, Ricci v. DeStefano, which has been remanded to a lower federal court to determine compensation for damages owed to Torre’s client. Since the contested 2003 test, no new lieutenants or captains have been promoted.
“It is our position that Mr. Rosen’s suit is legally baseless, untimely and filed for the improper purpose of attempting to delay my client’s promotion and the city of New Haven’s compliance with an opinion and order of the United States Supreme Court,” Torre said in a statement to the New York Times.
No one answered the door of Briscoe’s residence Thursday night. Briscoe’s lawyer, David Rosen, who filed the lawsuit, did not immediately respond to a request for comment left on his office phone Thursday evening.
In August, the Supreme Court ruled in the 5–4 decision that refusing to certify the promotional exam, which originated with an 1986 agreement reached with the firefighters’ union, violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on race, sex, religion or national origin. (Of the 20 firefighters who filed the lawsuit against the city, one was Hispanic and 19 were white.)
Rosen wrote in the lawsuit, which was filed in the federal court in New Haven, that the test also discriminated against his client, Briscoe, who is a black firefighter. Because of the discrimination, Rosen wrote, City Hall officials should promote Briscoe to the rank of lieutenant and award him the six years of missed seniority and back pay.
“As a result of the City’s unlawful conduct, the plaintiff is threatened with loss of promotional opportunity and with lost income and benefits,” Rosen wrote in the complaint.
Rosen argued that City Hall officials disproportionately considered the written and oral sections when determining test scores.
According to the lawsuit, the oral section of the city exam counted for 40 percent of the score, while the written counted for 60 percent. Across the nation, Rosen wrote, public safety officials count the section as 70 percent and written section as the remaining 30. Briscoe scored the highest of all 77 candidates for lieutenant on the oral section, but his poorer performance on the written section dropped him to 24th place — too low for promotion. Had the ratio of the sections been switched, Briscoe would have been one of the top candidates, according to the lawsuit.
Bolden said in an interview with the News on Thursday that city officials are receptive to all suggestions that would make the test less discriminatory.
It is unclear, though, whether Briscoe’s colleagues support the new lawsuit. About a half-dozen firefighters who work at the Dixwell fire station on Goffe Street — the workplace of Frank Ricci, who was named in the Supreme Court case — declined to comment, saying they received a city memo not to talk to the media.
But at the time of the ruling, some firefighters said they hoped the case’s conclusion would allow the promotions to start again.
“People are waiting to move on,” Lt. Luke Rivera told the News in June. “The city will hopefully put together a promotional exam quickly. We need leadership in the department right now.”
Correction: October 19, 2009
The previous version of this article contained three errors. First, it misquoted a statement by Karen Torre, the lawyer who brought the Supreme Court case. The full statement is as follows: “It is our position that Mr. Rosen’s suit is legally baseless, untimely and filed for the improper purpose of attempting to delay my client’s promotion and the city of New Haven’s compliance with an opinion and order of the United States Supreme Court.” Second, the article should have said that this statement was given to The New York Times. Third, the case has been remanded to a lower court to determine compensation for damages owed to Torre’s client, not to decide how to avoid future discrimination.