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Friday, February 23, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Firefighter Candidates’ Bias Claims Head to Jury

(CN) - The 8th Circuit revived the discrimination claims of a Native American man and white woman who were denied firefighter positions in Rochester, Minn. The court said a jury should decide if their lower test scores were the result of bias during the hiring process.

David Torgerson and Jami Mundell claimed the city used the test results as pretext to exclude them based on national origin or gender.

During the hiring process, candidates must pass written and physical tests before they are interviewed by a three-member commission and approved for hiring. The top-ranked candidates are also interviewed by Fire Chief David Kapler.

Torgerson and Mundell passed the written and agility phases, but claimed the interviewers' biases caused them to score lower on subjective interview phase.

Rochester insisted that the two candidates weren't hired because they scored "significantly lower than other candidates."

The district court granted Rochester's motion for summary judgment. But the 8th Circuit in St. Louis reversed in part, saying the candidates offered enough evidence of discrimination to present to a jury.

Judge Lavenski R. Smith said the candidates offered sufficient evidence that the city's stated reasons for not hiring Torgerson and Mundell were pretext, including the hiring of some equally or less-qualified white candidates, the subjective nature of the interview process, and the fire chief's reference to them as "unfit."

"The panel interviews are subjective and weighted to account for 40 percent of the applicant's final score - the largest single component," Smith wrote. "The fire chief interviews were similarly subjective. While these facts alone do not prove that these interviews became tools of discrimination, the subjectivity involved does warrant scrutiny."

But the circuit panel rejected Torgerson's race-bias claim, saying he "never referred to race in any court documents." The judges limited his claim to the allegation he did make: discrimination on the basis of national origin.

Judge Duane Benton dissented in part. "In my view, Torgerson and Mundell do not produce evidence from which a reasonable jury could find that Rochester's stated reason for not hiring them - that they scored lower in the hiring process than candidates hired - is pretext for discrimination," he wrote.

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