Ending more than 20 years of legal wrangling, 75 white Chicago firefighters will share $6 million to settle a lawsuit that accused the city of reverse discrimination in a 1986 lieutenants’ promotional exam.
The city had “race normed” the results of the exam out of concern it discriminated against black firefighters, but a jury found the test was fair. The city appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled on behalf of the white firefighters.
Among the 75 firefighters is John Power, who told U.S. District Judge James Holderman last month he is owed about $140,000 in back pay because he was not promoted to lieutenant.
“I did my part, studying and doing all the things I should have done,” Power said.
“Frankly, this was unfair,” Holderman responded.
Still, Linda Friedman, an attorney for the white firefighters, acknowledged that “it’s a challenging task for a municipality to balance the need to have an integrated fire department without stepping on the rights of the people to be affected.”
Friedman said the firefighters, many of whom have retired, can expect to receive their checks by this fall. Attorney’s fees will also come out of the $6 million settlement, said Jennifer Hoyle, a spokeswoman for the city’s Law Department.
Hoyle said $6 million is on the “low end” of what the city might have wound up paying. The settlement comes at a time when nosediving revenues threaten to poke a $200 million hole in Chicago’s 2009 budget, but Hoyle said the city has budgeted for it.
A group of 100 other white firefighters previously received tens of millions of dollars and benefits in a separate settlement in the same suit, Friedman said. That group was higher on the hiring list than the 75 firefighters.
Friedman said the biggest lesson she has learned from her clients is “how much effort goes into the profession.” She also said it took too long for the city to “step up to the plate and pay.”