So, while everyone has been paying attention to the Ricci v. DeStefano case, which dealt with a group of white firefighters who claim that they should’ve been promoted, another case involving New Haven firefighters has been making its way through the state court system.

(As an aside, are there any firefighters in New Haven who haven’t brought an employment discrimination claim against the city?)

Today, the Connecticut Supreme Court reversed a jury verdict which found that, by promoting other firefighters through a practice called ‘‘underfilling,’’ the City of New Haven (and others) had discriminated against several African-American firefighters on the basis of race in violation of their right to equal protection under the fourteenth amendment to the United States constitution.

The case, Broadnax v. City of New Haven (download here), won’t be officially released until next week, but it dates back to some decisions made in the 1990s.  

Frankly, because the case is decided on equal protection grounds, it will be of little impact to private employers in the state. For government entities, though the case, delves into the practice of "underfilling" and says that, at least in this situation, it was handled properly.

What is "underfilling"? Don’t bother looking it up in Google. But the Connecticut Supreme Court provides its definition:

Underfilling, as the term is used in the present case, occurs when the fire department promotes an individual to a particular position, and the city’s budget has not allocated funds to pay the salary of that position, whereby funds for a vacant higher ranking position are used to pay for the newly appointed lower ranking position. For example, if ten individuals are promoted to lieutenant, and only five vacancies exist in the budget for the position of lieutenant, but several vacancies exist in a higher ranking position, such as captain or battalion chief, the first five newly appointed lieutenants are promoted and paid with budgeted lieutenant funds, but the next five newly appointed underfilled lieutenants are paid with funds reserved
for the vacant captain or battalion chief positions. Thus, when an individual employed at a lower ranking position is paid from funds reserved for a higher ranking position, that individual is considered to have been underfilled.’

Got that?

In any event, the Court here says New Haven’s practices were not discriminatory and that the evidence presented by the firefighters fell far short of establishing their case. 

For New Haven, the case will surely bring a sigh of relief that it can close yet another case involving firefighters in the city. But don’t expect that we’ve heard the last of a group of firefighters. Yet another group of firefighters have been requesting judicial relief as well lately.

Ed: Updated to reflect newer posts and correct style

There are many employment lawyers who subscribe to the belief that "No Good Deed Goes Unpunished".  A case out of Connecticut and the Second Circuit this month certainly won’t change that perception.  Indeed, although the case may have political undertones, it sets up a classic factual case of an employer who apparently tries to do the right thing and STILL gets sued for their actions.  Ultimately, the Second Circuit has affirmed that the employer did not violate the law but the issue still remains far from settled. 

Here’s the basic facts and background of Ricci v. DeStefano:

In March 2004, New Haven, Connecticut Fire Department held two promotional exams for the positions of Lieutenant and Captain.  However, the New Haven Civil Service Board (“CSB”) refused to certify the results of those exams because statistically, the test results showed that the test may have had a disparate impact on African-Americans. 

A group of seventeen white candidates and one Hispanic candidates who took the promotional exams sued.  These candidates fared fared very well on the test but did not receive a promotion because without the CSB’s certification of the test results, the promotional process could not proceed.

The Plaintiffs asserted that the refusal to certify the examination results violated their rights under Title VII and the Equal Protection Clause. In 2006, the District Court of Connecticut granted New Haven’s motion for summary judgment (decision here) — effectively dismissing  the case. 

CSB officials said, in their papers, that the reason they refused to certify the results is their desire to comply with the letter and the spirit of Title VII. The District Court noted that "Plaintiffs deride this ‘feigned desire to ‘comply’ with Title VII,’ arguing that defendants in fact violated that statute, and their actions were a mere pretext for promoting the interests of African-American firefighters and political supporters of the mayor. "

What is noteworthy, as the lower court pointed out, is that the case presents "the opposite
scenario of the usual challenge to an employment or promotional examination, as plaintiffs attack not the use of allegedly racially discriminatory exam results, but defendants’ reason for
their refusal to use the results.  

Ultimately, the District Court said that Plaintiffs’ contention that "diversity" is a code word for reverse discrimination did not have merit.  The employer here was trying to do right by not using a test that had a disparate impact and the Court was unwilling to suggest that the employer’s decision was incorrect.  The factual circumstances, as I’ve said before, are much more complex than that and I encourage readers to review the entire decision.

Of course, the Plaintiffs appealed. The Second Circuit la500 pearl st, second circuitst week affirmed the decision in a brief per curiam decision (available here).  The Court noted that the CSB "found itself in the unfortunate position of having no good alternatives."  

And while the court said it was "unsympathetic to the plaintiffs’ expression of frustration", the Court said that CSB was "simply trying to fulfill its obligations under Title VII when confronted with test results that had a disproportionate racial impact".   As such, its actions were protected. 

End of story, right?

Well, not quite.  Later in the week, the Second Circuit considered, but ultimately rejected a rehearing "in banc" (meaning a decision in front of all of the Second Circuit judges, not just a three judge panel).  The Wait a Second Blog explains the procedural mess in further detail in a post here.  What is unusual is that the decisions either concurring or dissenting in the decision to rehear the case in banc are lengthy and reveal a deeply divided Second Circuit. 

Indeed, the dissent noted that the Second Circuit has done a disservice by not publishing a full opinion on the subject and instead hiding behind a short "per curiam" opinion.  Ultimately, the dissent views the issue as one of "great importance" and believes that full consideration by the Second Circuit — or at least a more detailed decision — is warranted.  Certainly, the next time this issue is before the Second Circuit, we can expect more fireworks depending on the panel makeup.

The Plaintiffs here have petitioned the Supreme Court to grant certiorari in this case. It certainly merits further watching.   I would expect a ruling from the Supreme Court on whether to grant certiorari in fall of 2008. 

For employers, this case demonstrates the problem that companies face all the time. Typically, a decision affecting one employee, will leave another unhappy.  And even when the employer is trying to do the "right" thing by complying with Title VII (even if there is political overtones) they still could face a lawsuit by a group of employees unhappy with the decision.  Strict compliance with the law and getting sound legal advice is the best strategy for avoiding the minefields that continue to exist in this area.

UPDATE: Point of Law was kind enough to pick up on the post and credit should be given to their initial post on the subject late last week (which I was just tipped off to).  There are also other blog posts on the subject here,  here and here as well. 

FURTHER UPDATE 6/17: Wait a Second has an update this afternoon about another dissenting opinion released today by Second Circuit Chief Judge Dennis Jacobs.  From a legal procedural perspective, it’s interesting to see the "catfight" going on at the Court of Appeals. But from employment law perspective, it doesn’t really affect the underlying decision.