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Thursday, June 13, 2024 | Back issues
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Judge Tosses Bias Claim Against Fla. Fire Dept.

(CN) - Black firefighters in Jacksonville, Florida waited too long to enforce an order that required an equal number of black and white firefighters are hired in the city, a federal judge ruled.

Olivette Coffey Jr., a black man with military firefighting experience, sued Dwight Braddy and other members of the city's Civil Service Board for rejecting his application. He claims their hiring practices violated his civil rights.

After years of complaints of racial discrimination by the City of Jacksonville fire department, a federal court entered a consent decree in 1982 requiring the city to hire "an equal number of blacks and whites until the ratio of black fire fighters to white fire fighters reflects the ratio of black citizens to white citizens in the City of Jacksonville."

According to the order, the city complied until 1992 when, without notice, it simply stopped following the court's decree. Immediately, the hiring of black firefighter plummeted, according to the plaintiff.

Coffey claimed that between 1992 and 1997, the City hired 136 firefighters, yet only one was black and that, after 1997, the number of black firefighters hired continued to be far below the number of white firefighters hired, in contravention of the decree's one to one hiring dictate.

But it was not until 2007 when Coffey decided to hold the city accountable.

In the class action suit, Coffey sought to represent a class of the black residents of the city who desired to have their homes and neighborhoods protected by a fire department whose members reflected the Jacksonville's racial and ethnic diversity, as well as applicants and potential applicants whose applications had been or would be denied because of the fire department's discriminatory hiring process.

Coffey sought declaratory and injunctive relief under the due process and equal protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment, and under the Florida Constitution and Florida law.

But while U.S. District Judge Timothy Corrigan conceded that the city may have been wrong when it stopped following the order without notice 15 years ago, he held that occurred too long ago to hold anyone accountable.

"The City stopped complying in 1992, it gave no notice to the Court, the lawyers for the plaintiff class, the public and perhaps even the City Council and the Mayor. If true, the City's action was unacceptable and potentially contumacious. The City should have asked the Court to modify or dissolve the decree if it thought it had achieved compliance," Judge Corrigan wrote.

"If this was 1992, 1993, or 1994 (or perhaps even somewhat later) the Court could consider whether to hold the City in contempt or whether to dissolve or modify the decree," the judge continued. "But the City argues that, even if it was in violation, by waiting fifteen years to raise the issue, the gaps in the record are such that the City cannot defend itself, and plaintiffs are therefore barred by laches from obtaining any relief.

"While the City did not make any announcement either before or at the time it stopped following the decree, that soon became common knowledge. African-American firefighters, the Jacksonville Brotherhood of Firefighters, their lawyer ... and other interested parties knew early on that the City had ceased complying without seeking Court approval, but the plaintiffs waited fifteen years to resurrect the matter."

"Absolutely nothing prevented plaintiffs from returning to Court in the early 1990's seeking to hold the City in contempt; thus the plaintiffs' delay was "not excusable." And now it is too late," Corrigan wrote.

He therefore had no choice, he said, but to deny Coffey's motion to hold the City of Jacksonville in contempt and granted The City's motion to dissolve the decree and dismiss this case.

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