A group of African-American firefighters in New York sued their city, which had administered a test for promotion to lieutenant that the plaintiffs said had a disparate (negative) impact—that is, unintentional discrimination—on black firefighters. Their suit has been long running.
What happened. In 1998 and 2002, the city of Buffalo tested any interested firefighters who wanted to be promoted to lieutenant. The test had been created by a personnel examiner with the New York State Civil Service Department, who had surveyed firefighters across the state to determine the skills, knowledge, abilities, and personality characteristics they felt were important on the job.
When the test was presented to Buffalo firefighters in 1998, the results appeared to be skewed: Of 179 white firefighters who took it, 133, or 74.3%, passed; by contrast, of 89 black firefighters who took it, only 38, or 42.6%, passed. To the plaintiffs, that was clear evidence that the test has a disparate impact on African Americans. At the same time, 30% of Buffalo’s firefighters are black, but only 4% of fire officers hold the rank of lieutenant or higher.
A group calling itself the Men of Color Helping All—or M.O.C.H.A.—Society, plus nine individuals, sued Buffalo’s fire department for discrimination. In federal district court, the city repeatedly argued that, based on the test’s origins, it is job-related and consistent with business necessity. The plaintiffs countered that Buffalo had participated almost not at all in the survey research and is much larger than the towns that did participate. (New York City and Rochester also declined to participate.)
The court ruled three times, once in 2009 and twice in 2010, in favor of the city, and plaintiffs appealed to the 2nd Circuit, which covers Connecticut, New York, and Vermont.
What the court said. Appellate judges consolidated the three district rulings and reviewed the evidence. Despite Buffalo’s paltry participation in the research, two of the three judges agreed with the district court that the test is job-related and consistent with business necessity—so that it should be certified and can be used. The third judge strongly disagreed, but the majority ruling will stand, at least for now. M.O.C.H.A. Society v. Buffalo, U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, No. 11-2184 (7/30/12).
Point to remember: In a ruling on a case from New Haven, Connecticut, Ricci v. DeStefano, the U.S. Supreme Court found that the city’s refusal to certify a firefighter test that disparately impacted blacks wasn’t justified. So, for different reasons, the rulings in the two cases were similar.