11th Cir. Brings End to Jacksonville Hiring Case

     (CN) — The 11th Circuit threw out a 34-year-old consent decree aimed at fixing discriminatory hiring practices in the Jacksonville Fire Department, finding that a group waited too long to try to enforce the agreement.
     The decree, established in 1982, originated after a class-action lawsuit was filed against the Fire Department of the City of Jacksonville in 1971. The lawsuit claimed that the department violated the civil rights of past, present and future black employees through its racially prejudicial hiring practices.
     Then-U.S. District Judge Charles Scott issued the decree, forcing Jacksonville’s fire department “to take whatever action is necessary to hire 50 percent black and 50 percent white individuals to fill funded positions [within the fire department until] it equals the ratio of black citizens to white citizens in the city of Jacksonville.”
     The one-to-one hiring requirement was actively upheld for a decade, but suddenly and by its own admission, Jacksonville stopped following the decree without officially petitioning the district court for release.
     There appeared to be a period of public acceptance over the decree’s non-enforcement. But in 1999, the debate over the lack of diversity in the fire department ignited again.
     “Out of 136 firefighters that the city hired from 1992 to 1997, only one was African-American,” Tuesday’s ruling states. “When existing black firefighters noticed the disparity and asked about the consent decree, they were told that the city had stopped hiring one-to-one because the terms of the decree had been met.”
     It wasn’t until 2007 that Jacksonville publicly admitted it had stopped complying with the decree. A motion to show caused was filed against the city, seeking to hold it in contempt, and settlement negotiations with the Jacksonville Brotherhood of Firefighters were attempted in 2013 but were “proven unfruitful,” the ruling states.
     It was revealed during those negotiations that a two-day evidentiary hearing was held in 1991, which demonstrated that a memo had been sent to the city’s general counsel notifying it that the fire department had reached “the ratio of black-to-white firefighters to black-to-white citizens in the general population,” as the decree demanded.
     The memo to general counsel also stated that “no further taxpayer’s dollars [are] to be expended to seek court approval of the city’s decision to stop hiring one-to-one,” court records show.
     But the reality of whether or not the decree had been fulfilled in earnest remained unclear. In 1999, a new city ordinance was passed which removed obstacles to minority hiring but the number of black employees hired continued to stagnate.
     A federal judge in Florida denied the Jacksonville Brotherhood of Firefighters’ motion to show cause and dissolved the 1982 consent decree.
     The 11th Circuit affirmed Tuesday, finding that the group had waited too long to file its motion.
     “The district court did not abuse its discretion in finding that the plaintiffs’ 15-year delay was not excusable. The plaintiffs unquestionably knew about the city’s position regarding the consent decree by at least 1999 (and likely well before that) and yet did nothing to attempt to enforce the decree,” Judge John Rogers wrote for a three-member panel of the Atlanta-based appeals court.
     Tuesday’s ruling finally settled the long back and forth, and rested on numerous legal precedents including the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Rufo v. Inmates of Suffolk County Jail, which found that “[a] consent decree must of course be modified if, as it later turns out, one or more of the obligations placed upon the parties has become impermissible under federal law.”
     “The decree, which requires that the black-to-white ratio of the fire-department workforce reflect the black-to-white ratio of the city’s population, violates the Equal Protection Clause’s requirement that the minority composition of the workforce in question be compared to the qualified minority population in the relevant labor market rather than the general population,” Rogers wrote. “Further, the quota-based hiring required by the decree would not likely pass strict scrutiny.”
     The 11th Circuit also found that Jacksonville did not lie or conceal information, since the “city responded in no uncertain terms that it believed that the goals of the consent decree had been achieved and that ‘the city did not need to get a court order’ to end compliance with the decree.”
     “Because it was common knowledge that the city was not abiding by the consent decree for at least eight years prior to the plaintiffs’ filing of their motion, there is no excuse for the plaintiffs delaying so long in bringing their motion,” Rogers wrote.

%d bloggers like this: