Do Written Exams for Entry-Level Firefighters Discriminate Against Minorities?

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) on May 21 filed a lawsuit alleging that the City of New York uses written examinations that discriminate against blacks and Hispanics in the hiring of entry-level firefighters in the Fire Department of the City of New York (FDNY).

According to DOJ's complaint, of FDNY's 11,000 uniformed firefighters in all ranks, only about 3 percent are black and 4.5 percent are Hispanic. These figures contrast sharply with the percentages of blacks and Hispanics in the city's police department (NYPD) which, according to a 1999 city report, are 13.4 percent and 17.2 percent of the uniformed officers, respectively; those percentages have since increased.

Filed in the Eastern District of New York, the suit claims two written examinations used by FDNY in the selection of firefighter applicants violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, because they result in a disparate impact against black and Hispanic applicants and do not accurately determine whether an applicant will be able to perform the job of firefighter. Title VII prohibits employment practices and selection devices, such as the city's use of the written examinations, that result in disparate impact on the basis of race or national origin, unless employers can prove that such practices and devices are "job related for the position in question and consistent with business necessity."

The lawsuit resulted from allegations of race discrimination made in charges that were filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) by the Vulcan Society Inc., an organization that represents black FDNY firefighters, and three individual claimants. After EEOC determined a Title VII violation, DOJ conducted its own investigation and determined the examinations also constituted a pattern or practice of discrimination against both black and Hispanic applicants.

"Examinations should validly measure an applicant's ability to do the job," said Wan J. Kim, assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division. "The city's testing practices, however, do not select the firefighter applicants who will best perform their important public safety mission, while disproportionately screening out large numbers of qualified black and Hispanic applicants.

The two written examinations identified in the United States’ complaint were administered in February 1999 and December 2002. The first examination was used to appoint new firefighters from February 2001 until December 2004. The second examination has been used to appoint new firefighters since May 2004. Although the city administered a new written firefighter examination in January 2007, it continues to appoint new firefighters from the eligibility list of the second examination. The city has advised DOJ that the city intends to continue to use that eligibility list until May 2008.

The suit seeks a court order that the city end discrimination against black and Hispanic firefighter applicants and as asks for remedial relief for those black and Hispanic firefighter applicants who have been harmed by the two challenged examinations. This is DOJ's first pattern or practice Title VII lawsuit against a major municipal fire department since 1991.

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