A dozen white firefighters have prevailed in their reverse discrimination lawsuits against the city of Bridgeport, Connecticut.
Settlement of the Bridgeport lawsuits filed was announced Tuesday, after lawyers representing the white firefighters said this summer that their position was bolstered by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that favored white firefighters in New Haven who had made similar arguments.
The 12 plaintiffs, including a Puerto Rican, filed suit in federal court in April, eight months after several of them were denied promotions to lieutenant when the city rescored a lieutenant promotional exam. The 2006 test was rescored and reranked after James Outtz, a nationally known test designer, found the results had been weighted unfavorably against minority candidates.
The city decided to change the original grading from 50 percent written, 45 percent oral and 5 percent seniority to 75 percent oral and 25 percent written, which allowed more minorities to pass. In doing so, the action prevented most of the 12 plaintiffs from being promoted to the higher grade and a larger salary.
“We got everything we wanted,” said Richard L. Albrecht, a lawyer from the firm of Cohen and Wolf, who, with Courtney A. George, led the firm’s representation of the white firefighters.
Lt. Shane Porter, president of the Firebird Society, an organization of black and Hispanic firefighters, said the settlement could have “a ripple effect” that could have an impact on the department’s racial makeup all the way down to entry-level hiring and possibly influence fire and police department personnel policies in other communities.
“It’s a disappointing decision that will have a long-term affect on how the fire service will look in the future,” he said. “We need to be more diversified, and this kind of puts a damper on that. The fire, police departments should represent — look like — the communities they serve.”
Porter asserted the settlement further undermines Title 7, the federal anti-discrimination law that prohibits disparate impact.
“Bridgeport set out to honor the law — that was the right thing to do,” he said. “Now, to reverse it back, we’re like breaking the law all over again.”
Plaintiffs in the suits were: Timothy Bottone of Newtown, Matthew Deysenroth of Redding, Michael Donovan of Hamden, Steven Earl and Francis McNellis Jr., both of Monroe, Joseph LaChioma of Derby, Robert Novak of Shelton, David Purcell of Milford, Mike Raffalo of Wethersfield, Phil Reeves of Wilton and Timothy Richmond of Oxford. Also a plaintiff in the lawsuit was Roberto Diaz of Naugatuck, listed as Caucasian and Puerto Rican.
All of the plaintiffs passed the initial promotional exam on Dec. 18, 2006, which was scored and ranked in September 2007. Based on those results, Novak, Ruffalo, Deysenroth, Bottone and Purcell finished among the top 15 candidates for the 15 vacancies. However, Ruffalo, Bottone and Purcell were removed from lieutenant positions and denied a promotion when the city in July 2008 decided to change the test scoring.
Only Novak and Deysenroth were promoted.
The settlement reinstates the firefighters to the rank they had in 2007 and promotes the firefighters who passed the exam, granting them back pay and seniority retroactive to August 2008 when the promotions took place.
The promotions to the rank of lieutenant could take effect as soon as Wednesday. The city will also have to pay $75,000 toward the plaintiffs’ legal fees.
The filing comes months after the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the outcome in a similar case involving white New Haven firefighters seeking promotion to captain and lieutenant after achieving top scores on those exams and no black candidates passed.
In that case, New Haven had thrown out the two 2003 exams after upholding minority firefighters’ claims it was discriminatory. The high court, however, found that the white firefighters’ claims of reverse discrimination were justified, and ordered the original promotions to go forward.
“These cases are a major game changer in this business,” said Albrecht. “They are really beneficial to the municipalities, which had been held hostage by a misinterpretation of the rules concerning discrimination claims. They will now be able to save a ton of money. This fight has been going on for a long time.”
Fire Union President Robert Whitbread declined to comment beyond saying, “The union signed this agreement. That’s it.”
Mayor Bill Finch said, “The city believes that this settlement is in the best interests of the Bridgeport Fire Department, and it has been agreed to by the Bridgeport Firefighters Union, as well as all the parties to the litigation.”
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