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Supreme Court decision could inspire Austin firefighters to file complaint

Tuesday, June 30, 2009 by Austin Monitor

The US Supreme Court ruled 5-4 Monday that the city of New Haven, Connecticut, discriminated against white firefighters when it threw out the results of a test that yielded no black contenders for promotion. http://www.supremecourtus.gov/opinions/08pdf/07-1428.pdf Legal pundits noted that the case could lead to even more battles over the meaning of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, as well as affecting employers that want to promote minority candidates and avoid lawsuits from white employees. It could also have an impact locally.

 

Austin Firefighters Association President Stephen Truesdell said Monday that some Austin firefighters who got passed over for promotion to assistant chief earlier this month may decide to file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Fire Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr passed over more experienced firefighters to hire one Hispanic and one African American assistant chief on June 14 after the City Council gave her permission to hire two more assistants (not the three she had hoped to hire).

 

Kerr said the appointments would help improve the diversity of the department’s work force. Earlier she had attempted to add another assistant chief, a white firefighter, but he would have been the fifth assistant chief and the Council declined to add more chiefs during a tough budget season.

 

There has been a talk of EEOC complaint from some of the members who were passed over for the promotion and I think this (court) decision will kind of galvanize their feelings that they could file a claim,” Truesdell said. He noted that traditionally firefighters are promoted from battalion chief to assistant chief but Kerr went outside the regular order, disappointing “a lot of battalion chiefs doing everything they can to be prepared for an opportunity” to move up.

 

However, Truesdell said he did not yet know what impact the ruling might have on Austin. “Our international (union) is reviewing the case and trying to put out some information so we can understand what it means at a local level,” Truesdell said. The local union group had threatened to file suit against the city after Kerr promoted Orta and Davis, saying the promotions violate state civil service law.

 

After the decision was announced, the International Association of Firefighters put out the following statement: “The IAFF recognizes that promotional systems are developed locally, where virtually every fire department in the country uses its own, unique system to best fit the needs of that community and its fire department. The IAFF also recognizes the fact that a variety of valid promotional testing processes have been developed that place emphasis on different elements of the testing procedure – including written and oral testing, seniority, table top scenarios, efficiency ratings and job-related skills, to name a few.”

http://www.iaff.org/09News/062909NewHaven.htm

 

The Austin situation is not very similar to the New Haven case, styled Ricci v. DeStefano, because in the Connecticut case firefighters took a written test and the results were discarded because no African Americans scored high enough to be promoted. As Truesdell pointed out, Chief Kerr chose her assistant chiefs based on their leadership abilities as she perceives them, and not on how well they scored on a test.

 

Michelle DeCrane, a spokesperson for the Fire Department, said the chief was out of town Monday and could not be reached for comment on the opinion. Assistant City Attorney Laurie Eiserloh, the Fire Department’s attorney, told In Fact Daily, “We are reviewing it, talking to our clients, and considering its ramifications.”

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