Only a few months after the finalization of a settlement to a New Haven firefighter-filed lawsuit that reached the Supreme Court, the same department is causing another legal headache for the city.
On Oct. 7, seven black firefighters filed a suit against the city alleging that the promotional examination given to firefighters in 2003 discriminated against African American test-takers and seeking promotions, back pay for salaries not collected at a higher position and general compensation. This situation is precisely what city officials had hoped to avoid when they threw out the test results eight years ago, prompting the now-famous lawsuit Ricci v. DeStefano case, in which a group of mostly white firefighters who claimed the decision violated their constitutional rights sued the city.
City spokesman Adam Joseph said while the city cannot comment on active litigation, City Hall is aware of the black firefighters’ suit and will “respond accordingly.”
Lead plaintiff Gary Tinney, as well as the six other firefighters involved in the suit, wrote in the complaint that it is “widely accepted” by psychologists and testing consultants that exams that focus on memorization like the one administered in 2003 have an “inherent adverse impact” towards blacks and Hispanics. The suit names New Haven and the firefighter union as defendants.
Dennis Thompson, the attorney representing Tinney and the other plaintiffs, said the union is one of the defendants because it helped the city decide on the test structure. Thompson, whose Ohio-based firm specializes in worker’s rights, said the tests used to determine promotion should not be shaped by the city or collective bargaining but instead by a third-party “competent testing development” organization to ensure that the promotional examinations are both fair and relevant.
The Ricci case began in 2004 when the New Haven Civil Service Board threw out the firefighters’ test results in an attempt to avoid violating Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Because white firefighters had performed better than black and Hispanic firefighters, the test would have resulted in nearly all promotions going to the white firefighters. Twenty city firefighters who would have been promoted based on the test results contested the action and eventually won a settlement in a landmark Supreme Court decision in 2009.
Despite the two lawsuits, firefighters have maintained their support of the leadership of City Hall leading up to the Nov. 8 mayoral election. The firefighter’s union’s executive board, of which Ricci is a member, endorsed Mayor John DeStefano Jr.’s bid for re-election in September.
But DeStefano’s challenger, budget watchdog Jeffrey Kerekes, said he does not find this endorsement to be particularly valuable, as the executive board did not confer with its membership before making the endorsement.
DeStefano also received an endorsement from the New Haven Firebirds, the city’s fraternal association of black firefighters of which Tinney is president. This show of support came on Oct. 21, two weeks after Tinney and the other firefighters filed their lawsuit against the city.
Kerekes said the Firebirds’ endorsement of DeStefano was surprising, given how they have spoken about the mayor in the past.
“They were talking at length about how they felt like black city employees constantly get skipped over [because of] unfair hiring,” Kerekes said. “They were quite upset with how that went down, and now they’re standing up there and endorsing him — it’s quite confusing.”
In the July Ricci settlement, the city agreed to pay the plaintiffs a combined total of $2 million over the next two years, and each plaintiff’s pension plan will be treated as if he had been on the service for an extra three years.