Firefighters to be promoted after lawsuit

New Haven firefighter Frank Ricci looks on during a June 29 press conference on the steps of the federal courthouse on Church Street.
New Haven firefighter Frank Ricci looks on during a June 29 press conference on the steps of the federal courthouse on Church Street. Photo by Baobao Zhang.

Some of the 20 New Haven firefighters who sued City Hall in 2004 will soon get the promotions they have long sought.

Today, the New Haven Civil Service Board, a five-member city committee that approves promotions for all city employees, will certify the promotion of 14 firefighters, following a federal order issued by Connecticut’s U.S. District Court on Nov. 24. This will be the first set of promotions for the city fire department since its controversial 2003 promotional exam, the results of which were eventually upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in June. City Hall spokeswoman Jessica Mayorga said Sunday that the Board of Fire Commissioners, which serves as an advisory board to the fire department, will approve the promotions Tuesday, and the firefighters will be sworn in the near future.

The 20 New Haven firefighters first sued the city in 2004, when City Hall threw out the results of a firefighter promotion exam because no black firefighters scored high enough to be promoted. Nineteen white and one Hispanic test takers, led by main plaintiff Frank Ricci, sued Mayor John DeStefano Jr., arguing that the city’s decision violated their rights under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the 14th Amendment.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 in June that the city violated the Civil Rights Acts and ordered the federal court in Connecticut to determine how to promote the firefighters.

In the two-page Nov. 24 federal order, U.S. District Judge Janet Bond Arterton said eight plaintiffs should be promoted to the rank of lieutenant and six plaintiffs to the rank of captain. The rest of the plaintiffs did not score high enough to warrant promotion, a fact they did not know when they filed the lawsuit, according to the New Haven Independent.

The court order is a bittersweet victory for the plaintiffs, said Karen Torre, the attorney who represented the 20 firefighters.

“These men have waited almost six years for promotions that were due to them back in early 2004,” she wrote in an e-mail. “Thus, while we are pleased, we are ever mindful of what they were put through during these years.”

Although the court order says the Civil Service Board will certify the promotions based on the exam results, the order does not specify whether firefighters with qualifying scores who did not file the lawsuit will be promoted.

Yale law lecturer David Rosen LAW ’69, an expert in anti-discrimination law, said he understands the frustrations the non-plaintiffs face and cannot tell based on Arterton’s order whether these firefighters will be promoted.

“I don’t know whether they need to do anything,” Rosen said of the non-plaintiff firefighters.

Mayorga said the city is currently focused on complying with the federal order and has not reached a decision about what to do with the non-plaintiff firefighters.

Some litigation involving the 2003 promotional exam is still pending. In November, seven black firefighters filed a motion to be named as plaintiffs in the 2004 lawsuit, Ricci v. DeStefano. In October, black firefighter Michael Briscoe filed a separate civil lawsuit against the city, claiming that the 2003 exam discriminated against blacks.

Correction: Nov. 30, 2009

An earlier version of this article, due to an editing error, misquoted David Rosen LAW ’69. Rosen said, “I don’t know whether they need to do anything,” referring to non-plaintiff firefighters, not city officials. In addition, the article misidentified Rosen’s title; he is a research scholar and lecturer, not a professor, in the Law School.

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