William Kaempffer, New Haven Register, February 15, 2008
NEW HAVEN—Twenty firefighters did not have their civil rights violated when two promotional tests were thrown out at the city’s urging in 2004 because too few minorities scored near the top, a federal appeals court ruled Friday.
In a four-paragraph summary order, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit upheld a New Haven district court judge’s 2006 decision that the firefighters didn’t have legitimate claims of race discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
It was a vindication for the city administration, which critics claimed was playing race politics in promotions and over the last decade has paid out hundreds of thousands of dollars to city employees over lawsuits.
The three-judge panel did not waste words, filing a summary order instead of a full legal opinion. The panel said it was “not unsympathetic” to the firefighters’ expressions of frustration. Frank Ricci, the lead plaintiff, is dyslexic and worked hard to score high on the promotional test only to have it invalidated, the judgment noted, but it did not follow that he had a viable civil rights claim.
Fire Lt. Matt Marcarelli, a plaintiff who scored first on the captain’s test, said Friday the group was “disgusted” by the order. He said it allows a dangerous situation in New Haven to continue, and “the unqualified, who failed a competency exam, to command life and death situations.”
The issue dates back to 2003, when the city conducted promotional tests for fire lieutenant and captain. In early 2004, the city’s top attorney and other administrators, during a series of contentious public hearings that stoked racial tensions, urged the civil service commission to throw out the results because too few minority firefighters would have been in line for promotion, opening up the city to a potential civil rights lawsuit by minorities.
Instead, one Hispanic and 19 white firefighters filed suit, and in 2006, in a 48-page decision, District Judge Janet Bond Arterton granted the city’s request for summary judgment, dismissing the case.
The appeals court concurred, finding the civil service commission’s actions were protected because, in refusing to certify the exam, it was trying “to fulfill its obligations under Title VII when confronted with test results that had a disproportionate racial impact.”
Attorney Karen Torre, who represents the firefighters, said they were considering whether to ask the full 2nd Circuit Court to hear the case or to take a direct appeal to the Supreme Court.