Chicago’s Black Firefighters Get Attention of High Court

Chicago’s Black Firefighters Get Attention of High Court

Published October 1, 2009

Chicago, which already is facing a $520 million budget deficit, could be slapped with another $100 million bill if the U.S. Supreme Court sides with a group of Black firefighters who were bypassed as the result of an entrance exam 14 years ago.

The initial intent of the exam was to diversify the city’s predominantly White, Irish Fire Department. However, when minority candidates performed poorly on the test, the city established a cut-off score of 89 and skimmed its hires from the top 1,800 “well-qualified” candidates, The Chicago Sun-Times reports.

Since nearly eight in 10 of those well-qualified candidates were White, the net effect of that decision, was merely to perpetuate the discriminatory system, a federal judge ruled four years ago. Thus, Chicago was ordered to pay about $28 million in damages to 140 bypassed Black candidates if they were moved to the head of the class and as much as $100 million if they were not, according to the Sun-Times.

A federal appeals court threw out the case last year on a technicality – the plaintiffs missed the deadline for filing in court.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.

Plaintiffs’ attorney Matthew Piers was pleased with this news, telling the Sun-Times that the high court’s decision suggests that the Supreme Court “agrees with us” that there is a “serious split” between federal appeals courts across the country about when the clock starts running on civil rights cases.

“Every time the city went back and pulled names off that [1995 test] list, they were using a discriminatory employment policy and, under Title 7, every use of a discriminatory policy is a new act of discrimination,” Piers said. “I don’t think the city’s convoluted interpretation…will stand scrutiny. They’re saying when the city announced how it was going to use the test results, that announcement was the only use of the policy.”

But Jennifer Hoyle, a spokeswoman for the city’s Law Department, disagreed with Piers’ interpretation. “We don’t agree that the Supreme Court taking the case indicates they’re going to rule against the city,” she said. “Nor do we agree with [plaintiffs'] analysis of the potential damages.”

Piers said the city must begin to think about how it will compensate the plaintiffs. “It is very likely the court will determine that, because so much time has passed, people who took the test are too old now to be given jobs,” he said. “That means the only remedy available would be a complete cash-out of all lost wages. “If the city wants to cut its losses and talk about some combination of jobs and money, we are a phone call away.”

Annette Nance-Holt, president of the African-American Firefighters and Paramedics League, said Chicago has a protracted history of discrimination against minorities. “This city is made of diversity. It shouldn’t be a White, Irish, male department,” she told the newspaper.

Written by Ed Wiley III


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