The New York City Fire Department (FDNY) is nationally known for its heroic efforts during the tragic events of September 11, 2001. Less well-known is the decades-long struggle African Americans and other minorities have waged to open the FDNY to all men and women regardless of race. Jobs in the FDNY offer prestige, good pay, job security, and good benefits, yet the doors to FDNY firehouses have been effectively locked for anyone other than white men. In 2002, New York’s fire department was only 2.9 percent black, even though 27 percent of New York City’s population was African-American. With such disproportionately low numbers of African Americans and Latinos (combined 7.4%), the FDNY was the least diverse firefighting force of any major city in the country. By comparison, Los Angeles’ firefighting force is 57 percent people of color; Philadelphia’s – 51 percent; Boston’s – 40 percent; and Baltimore 30 percent.
That same year, the Vulcans Society, a fraternal organization of black firefighters, filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) against the FDNY alleging that it discriminated against black and Latino job applicants. The charge primarily focused on the FDNY’s use of two hiring exams from 1999 until 2007 that disproportionately blocked hiring of black and Latino applicants but did not measure the skills necessary to be a good firefighter.
After attempts to resolve the case in the EEOC failed, the United States Department of Justice (DOJ), filed a lawsuit against the City and the Vulcans Society and three individual plaintiffs, joined the suit. The lawsuit charged that the FDNY’s hiring practices violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the United States and New York State constitutions, and New York State Human Rights Law.
In December 2011, in a series of summary judgment rulings, a Brooklyn federal district court found the FDNY liable for intentional discrimination and disparate impact violations based on its use of the two exams. The court then ordered the FDNY to undertake certain actions, including improving recruitment of black and Latino candidates and improving retention rates for black and Latino candidates who passed the hiring exam. In its ruling the court expressed its frustration that nearly thirty years after another federal court held that the FDNY’s hiring exam unlawfully discriminated against African-American and Latino applicants, little had changed. Following the district court’s rulings, the FDNY appealed, among other things, the district court’s finding of intentional discrimination and some of the ordered relief.
LDF filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the Vulcans Society. In our brief, LDF argues the Second Circuit should uphold the court’s ruling and ordered relief. Specifically, we argue that this type of discrimination in fire departments has a long, shameful history in this country and that history led Congress to expand Title VII in 1972 to cover public employers. We also argue that, contrary to the FDNY’s claims, Title VII authorizes courts to award the kind of relief ordered here to eliminate effects of discriminatory practices and ensure equal opportunity. As demonstrated in cases like Griggs v. Duke (1971), Ricci v. DeStefano (2009), Lewis v. Chicago (2010), LDF has a long-standing commitment to eliminate systemic discrimination in public employment, and fire departments in particular.