In a ruling that could pave the way for severe sanctions and court oversight, a federal judge in Brooklyn Wednesday found that the New York City Fire Department had engaged in "intentional" exclusion of minorities for decades that represented a "persistent stain" on its record.
U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis' new finding of a pattern of intentional discrimination in the department dating back to the 1960s could lay the groundwork for court supervision of recruitment and hiring, lawyers said. It follows Garaufis' decision last year that fire department hiring tests had a disparate impact on blacks and Hispanics.
"The city has kept blinders tightly in place to avoid recognizing and dealing with a problem of discrimination that has been shockingly clear to all citizens of New York," said Richard Levy, a lawyer for the Vulcan Society, an organization of black firefighters. " . . no one in city government has seen fit to address the issue. Now it must."
Levy said the new findings could lead to court oversight, hiring targets or goals for minorities, and claims for compensatory damages for pain and humiliation in addition to back pay for minorities rejected in the past.
The lawsuit dates back to complaints filed with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2002 and 2007. The Vulcan Society has pressed its claims against the city alongside the U.S. Department of Justice. Garaufis' two rulings have set the stage for consideration of remedies later this year.
A chart in Wednesday's 70-page decision indicated that only 2.9 percent of city firefighters are black, compared with 26.6 percent of the city's population - a disparity greater than that in any other major American city.
Blacks and Hispanics in the Fire Department, Garaufis said, are also dramatically underrepresented relative to their numbers in the city's police, sanitation and correction departments.
"While we are pleased that the court dismissed the claims against the mayor and the former fire commissioner, the city vehemently disagrees with the balance of today's decision . . ." the city Law Department said in a statement. "Contrary to the court's opinion, it is the city's view that there is simply no evidence that the city ever intended to discriminate against black applicants."