A federal appeals court ruled on Friday that the Chicago Fire Department must hire 111 African Americans who passed a firefighters entrance exam 16 years ago and pay millions of dollars to thousands more who took and passed the same test.
The Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling was the latest blow to the city, which has been on the losing end of court decisions regarding the 1995 test for years, including a 2005 ruling by a federal judge who said the test discriminated against black applicants and a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year that the candidates did not wait too long to sue the city.
An attorney for the black firefighter candidates said that the 111 jobs would be filled from the applicants who passed the 1995 test and their pensions would be adjusted as if they'd been firefighters since 1995. And, said Joshua Karsh, 6,000 others who also passed the test will divide "tens of millions of dollars" that would have been paid 111 firefighters from 1995 until today.
A spokeswoman for the city's law department called the decision a "partial victory" for the city because it reduced the number of African Americans the fire department must hire from 132 to 111.
"Reducing the number of plaintiffs who are eligible reduces the damages," said Jenny Hoyle.
Hoyle said that the city was still calculating the damages as result of dividing the back pay of 111 firefighters among the 6,000 applicants, but that officials estimate the payout will be about $30 million.
The ruling stems from a test given in 1995 that was intended to measure an aptitude for firefighting. After the test, anyone who scored 64 or below was deemed not qualified, but officials told those who scored above that number that while they passed, they would randomly hire the top 1,800 who scored 89 or better.
Because only 11 percent of the African Americans scored 89 or better, the overwhelming number of applicants hired from that test were white.
Karsh said the test was discriminatory because there was no evidence that the applicant who scored 89 or better would be any better firefighter than another who scored a 64, and in fact in 2005 a federal judge said the test discriminated against black candidates. In her ruling the judge said the city knew the cutoff point was meaningless and would disproportionately exclude blacks from the pool of candidates most likely to be hired.
"If the city of Chicago had selected firefighters at random from all the people who passed the test it would have gotten a pool of equally capable firefighters and the pool would have been more integrated," said Karsh said. He said he did not know when the hiring might begin, but said that he expected it to start soon.
After the judge's decision, the city, which hadn't given another test since 1995 because of ongoing court challenges, gave another test in 2006. But that test was given on a pass/fail basis and that all passing applicants, and not just the top ones, were processed randomly for additional tests such as physical agility and background checks.