MANHATTAN (CN) - Minorities kept out of the New York City Fire Department will receive $98 million in back pay as part of a settlement reached ahead of a much-anticipated bias trial.
The U.S. Department of Justice had accused the city of discriminating against black and Hispanic firefighter applicants in a 2007 complaint, and the Vulcan Society, an organization representing black firefighters, quickly intervened in the case.
With the trial slated for March 31, representatives for the Vulcan Society announced a settlement Monday that includes back pay and injunctive relief. After the Center for Constitutional Rights held a press conference Tuesday, the Justice Department announced that the deal includes $98 million in relief. A trial would have included a damages cap of $128 million.
The settlement also requires the creation of an entry-level hiring process "that should more accurately identify firefighter candidates who are best qualified to do the job," Associate Attorney General Tony West said in a statement.
New York City had been preparing for a trial after the 2nd Circuit unraveled the findings of U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis that FDNY maintained a "stubborn bastion of white male privilege" for 40 years.
Though the federal appeals court left a monitor in place to ensure that the city reformed the "distressing pattern of limited FDNY minority hiring," it said the issue of "disparate impact" should have been decided at trial because it requires proof of the city's intent to discriminate.
At the time of the lawsuit, the fire department was roughly 90 percent white. Today it is 86 percent white, 9 percent Hispanic and 5 percent black, the New York Daily News reported.
Other changes since the Garaufis ruling included the September 2012 adoption of an entry-level firefighter exam that the United States developed jointly with the city, the Vulcan Society and the three individual firefighters who also intervened as plaintiffs.
This led to the FDNY's first entry-level firefighter exam in 15 years "that accurately predicts which candidates will perform better on the job and complies with Title VII," the Justice Department said in a statement.
The 2nd Circuit had also left intact orders for the FDNY to change its recruiting, post-examination hiring and Equal Employment Opportunities Office processes.
New York City was required as well to appoint up to 293 eligible claimants as priority FDNY hires, provided that they passed all of the same tests and other steps in the hiring process as other candidates.
"The first groups of priority hires joined the FDNY in July 2013 and January 2014, and additional priority hires are expected to join in July 2014," the Justice Department said in a statement.
Garaufis had found the city liable for disparate-impact discrimination, as well as having engaged in a pattern or practice of intentional discrimination against black firefighter applicants. Among its findings, the court concluded that the FDNY excluded black and Latino applicants for entry-level firefighting positions with nonessential screening questions in the examination.
U.S. District Judge Raymond Dearie would have presided over the trial after the 2nd Circuit found that Garaufis had displayed a bias that warranted his recusal.
"We have no doubt that Judge Garaufis is an entirely fair-minded jurist who could impartially adjudicate the remaining issues in this case, but we think a reasonable observer would have substantial doubts whether the judge, having branded the city's evidence 'incredible,' could thereafter be impartial in assessing the truth of conflicting evidence at a bench trial, the parties having waived a jury trial," Judge Jon Newman wrote, joined by Judge Ralph Winter.
Judge Rosemary Pooler had defended the summary-judgment finding of "disparate impact" in a dissent that cited "overwhelming statistics proving discriminatory intent."
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