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Settlement reached in FDNY discrimination suit

Fire Commissioner Salvatore Cassano, right, speaks with New

Fire Commissioner Salvatore Cassano, right, speaks with New York Mayor Bill de Blasio on the scene Wednesday, March 12, 2014, as firefighters from the FDNY respond to a five-alarm fire and building collapse on Park Avenue in East Harlem. Credit: Getty Images / Office of the Mayor of New York

New York City is set to pay up to $98 million in back pay and benefits to settle a Bloomberg-era lawsuit alleging the FDNY's entrance exams for firefighters discriminated against minority applicants.

The proposed settlement would make about 1,500 black firefighters who took the exams in 1999 and 2002 eligible for compensation.

It would create an FDNY chief diversity officer and require the city to try its best to ensure that the proportion of minority test-takers exceeds the city's job-eligible racial makeup to address past discrimination. Where possible, rookies living in the city would get priority to work in their neighborhoods when assignments are given.

"We hope that this is the beginning of a new day in the New York City Fire Department," said Capt. Paul Washington, a past president of the Vulcan Society, a fraternal organization of black firefighters.

More than four out of five FDNY firefighters are white, in a city where just 44 percent of the population is white, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. The final terms of the deal are still being negotiated, officials said.

The accord in the 7-year-old case marks yet another about-face on discrimination lawsuits under Mayor Bill de Blasio since he took office 10 weeks ago.

Earlier this year, de Blasio's lawyers agreed to settle a suit over the NYPD's practice of stopping, questioning and frisking mostly black and Latino young men, 90 percent of whom were found to have done nothing illegal. Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Police Commissioner Ray Kelly both fiercely opposed the lawsuit.

Weeks later, the administration also dropped another Bloomberg-era lawsuit, one seeking to block a law allowing suits against individual cops for racial profiling.

"The Bloomberg administration fought this case unnecessarily and losingly for all of these many years," said Richard Levy, one of the attorneys for the black firefighters and the Vulcans. The firefighters were also represented by the Manhattan-based Center for Constitutional Rights.

De Blasio said the settlement reflected progress for the city.

"I think the numbers speak for themselves. We strive for a government that really looks like New York City -- and I borrow that phrase from Bill Clinton. When he first became president he said he planned to appoint a government that looks like America," de Blasio said. "We need a government that looks like New York City."

The 2007 firefighters' suit followed a long and complicated legal path, including a federal judge's finding without a trial that the FDNY had intentionally discriminated and an appeals court partially overturning the ruling but leaving in place a federal monitor to oversee the department.

Vulcan Society president John Coombs said the group wants FDNY Commissioner Sal Cassano out. Cassano, a 40-year veteran, has served in the top job since Bloomberg appointed him in 2010.

"His time has come. He's proven that he's incapable as an administrator of looking at a situation for what it is," Coombs said. FDNY spokesman Frank Gribbon said diversity has hit unprecented all-time highs during Cassano's tenure. Gribbon said 46 percent of those who passed the last civil service test and are eligible to be hired as firefighters are minorities and women.

"We've had a lot of unprecendenteds with this latest test -- which happened under Cassano's watch," Gribbon said.

De Blasio's office didn't return a message seeking comment about Cassano's future.

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