Black firefighter’s suit thrown out

The controversial U.S. Supreme Court case Ricci v. DeStefano is one step closer to final resolution.

Six months after a black New Haven firefighter charged the city with discrimination in a separate lawsuit, a federal judge on Wednesday dismissed the suit, which city officials had said was complicating Ricci v. DeStefano’s final resolution.

Firefighter Frank Ricci, whose 2004 lawsuit started the battle.
Firefighter Frank Ricci, whose 2004 lawsuit started the battle.
No caption.
No caption.

“The decision confirms what should be a basic principle of law: A municipality should not be held liable for following a ruling of the United States Supreme Court,” New Haven Corporation Counsel Victor Bolden said in an e-mail Thursday.

The black firefighter, Michael Briscoe, sued New Haven in October, alleging that the city’s 2003 firefighter promotional test had a “disparate impact” on blacks and unjustly prevented his promotion to lieutenant.

The lawsuit was exactly the kind of charge the city was hoping to avoid when it refused to certify the test’s results because no blacks had scored well enough to be promoted.

But the city was sued anyway by one Hispanic and 19 white firefighters, including Frank Ricci, in 2004. A five-year legal battle ensued until June 2009, when the Supreme Court ruled in Ricci v. DeStefano that the city had violated the civil rights of the firefighters who had scored well.

Karen Torre, attorney for the 20 firefighters of the Ricci lawsuit, said in an e-mail that she and her clients were relieved by the dismissal Wednesday of Briscoe’s case, which she said had threatened to delay a resolution for her clients.

“[The lawsuit] did in fact — and for nearly eight months — complicate and hamper matters in the Ricci case on remand, impeding an efficient path toward final disposition of Ricci,” she said. “The rule of law has prevailed against an attempt that would undermine it.”

In its ruling, the Supreme Court did not address the issue of whether the promotional exam itself was discriminatory when it sent the case back to the lower court. Though Bolden said the judge’s dismissal Wednesday of Briscoe’s case releases the city from further liability in the Ricci case, John C. Brittain, a veteran civil rights lawyer and law professor who has written about the case, said the city will not know if it is in the clear until the judge releases the reasoning behind his decision, which he has not yet done.

“Until the opinion is released, the city’s just reading tea leaves,” he said.

Briscoe’s attorney, David Rosen, said Thursday that despite the Court’s ruling, the city was still liable for discrimination.

“The city didn’t get a free pass from the Supreme Court,” Rosen said.

Briscoe’s lawsuit claimed that the promotional test’s format discriminated against black candidates because it weighted the written section more heavily than the oral section. (The oral section of the exam counted for 40 percent, while the written counted for 60 percent.) Rosen wrote that public safety officials across the country count the oral section as 70 percent and the written as 30.

Briscoe scored the highest of all 77 candidates for lieutenant on the oral section but was not promoted because his low written score dropped him to 24th place. The lawsuit claimed that Briscoe would have been one of the top candidates if the city had used a fairer evaluation system.

Senior Judge Charles S. Haight Jr. dismissed the case Wednesday and has yet to release his written opinion. An assistant to the judge said Haight declined to comment on the case because the opinion is forthcoming.

Still, Rosen suggested that the case may not be over yet and left open the possibility that he will appeal Haight’s ruling.

“We still feel quite strongly about the case,” he said. “We’ll see what happens.”

Twenty-four firefighters, 14 of whom were among the Ricci plaintiffs, were promoted to the ranks of captain and lieutenant in December.

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