December 14, 2006 – Vol. 42, No. 18
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Court victory for minority firefighters statewide

Serghino René

U.S. District Judge Patti Saris recently ordered Massachusetts fire departments to offer jobs to about 50 minority firefighter applicants whom she ruled to have been affected by a discriminatory civil service hiring exam.

As part of last week’s ruling, the jobs would be offered to the minority candidates who applied in 2002 and 2004 and would have gotten jobs if it weren’t for the nature of the cognitive ability exam.

Members of the Lawyers Committee of Civil Rights Under Law, the New England Area Conference of the NAACP and Boston Society of Vulcans — an organization that represents black and Hispanic firefighters — intervened in the lawsuit, arguing that the existing exam has had a disparate impact on minorities.

“This decision proves what we have been saying,” said Vulcans President Karen Miller. “Now, we hope this opens the door to new processes, examinations and other components that will be fair to minority candidates.”

The original plaintiffs, brothers Jacob and Noah Bradley, Jared Thomas and Keith Ridley sued the City of Lynn and the state’s Human Resources Division for hiring candidates with an exam that critics have described as unconstitutional. Each of the four men was rejected for firefighting jobs in Lynn.

The NAACP had persistently urged Saris to give a court order to revise the list of candidates, giving the four men special reconsideration. All four men have passed the civil service exam and today, Bradley is working for the Lynn Fire Department.

State officials have revised the firefighter test, required under civil service laws, before giving it again this past summer. But lawyers in the case said they will look over those results to be sure it did not again unfairly disqualify minorities.

“We are hopeful that new civil service exam will not be biased, but we don’t know that yet,” said New England Area NAACP Conference President Juan Cofield. “The new test should put all applicants on an equal playing field. If we find that the test still discriminates, we will have to address the problem with the courts or the Human Resources Department of the Commonwealth.”

To prevent such discriminatory action and racial imbalance, the 1974 Beecher Decree was implemented. It stated that for every white person hired, there had to be one minority. Miller said that the one-to-one ratio never became a reality and hiring initially began on a three-to-one ratio.

That decree, however, came under debate three years ago when a federal appeals court found that the Boston Fire Department had reached racial balance. A reverse discrimination suit filed by four white men prompted the federal appellate case. They claimed minority candidates who scored lower on the exam were hired instead of them.

Cofield also said that some of the 50 applicants have chosen not to consider the job because they have moved on and are in the process of doing other things.

Saris also ordered the state to come up with a diversity recruiting plan to be put in place within 60 days. The purpose of the plan is to obtain as diverse a hiring pool as possible. With three proposals on the table so far, all three organizations have been collaborating with the state with the intent to pull the best components of each proposal to implement a plan.

“We can’t just have one plan in the box because it may not work for everyone,” said Miller.

Boston Fire Department officials declined to comment on the ruling.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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