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Court order scorches FDNY in discrimination case

CRAIG D. FRAZIER Special to the AmNews | 1/10/2013, 2:27 p.m.
Black firefighters win big, judge signs off on new entrance exam

A court has issued an order awarding an aggregate amount of back pay of $128 million for lost wages in response to discrimination by New York City. Federal Judge Nicholas Garaufis ordered the FDNY to hire 293 Black and Hispanic applicants who failed the firefighter's exam that he found to be discriminatory. According to the Justice Department, the judge found that "from 1999 to 2007, FDNY used written examinations with discriminatory effects. These examinations unfairly excluded hundreds of qualified people of color from the opportunity to serve as New York City firefighters."

New York City will have the opportunity to reduce the amount of back pay by proving that victims of discrimination mitigated their losses through interim employment. The court has also appointed four monitors to hold individualized hearings as part of the forthcoming claims process and to oversee the management of the claims process. Sources say that the monitors could award some 2,000 applicants of color, who scored above a threshold on the exams.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg promised that the city would appeal. "The bottom line is that we don't agree with the decision," the mayor said on a local radio show.

Capt. Paul Washington, former president of the Vulcan Society, a national organization of Black firefighters, was the FDNY employee who raised the original Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) complaint about the department's racial discrimination.

Washington said this lawsuit could have been avoided if the mayor had worked with the Vulcan Society back in 2002. "We understand that the mayor inherited this problem, but he had the opportunity to fix it if he would have approached the problem with an open mind," Washington noted.

In 2003, the mayor was shown a report from the EEOC indicating that the pass rate for whites was 91 percent and 61 percent for African-Americans. He was asked if he had ever talked to anyone about that "very large discrepancy."

"I don't recall, but I am sure I did," he said, insisting that there was still "no reason that I know of that the test would have discriminated one way or another."

As this case works its way up to the U.S. Court of Appeals and possibly the Supreme Court, Bloomberg's derisive deposition is likely to overshadow Garaufis and his historic ruling.

Fire Commissioner Salvatore Cassano was not happy with last week's ruling. "I've disagreed with the judge all along. If you study hard and you take the exam and you pass, it's the fairest way to get in the department. I disagree with his ruling of intentional discrimination. I've been in the department 42 years, I've never seen intentional discrimination," Cassano told reporters at a press conference.

Washington says that the commissioner's failure to acknowledge discrimination in the department proves that there is a problem. "This is a perfect example of how these officials involved refused to see what is obvious," stated Washington. "In my 23 years on the job, I have seen enough intentional discrimination for the both of us."