Lawsuit alleges racial discrimination by JFRD


JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A new lawsuit alleges that the city of Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department's hiring, transfer and assignment policies have a disproportionately adverse effect on black employees.

The lawsuit, filed by the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, also alleges that JFRD subjects African-American employees to a hostile and racially charged work environment in violation of the Civil Rights Act.

The Lawyers' Committee and pro bono local counsel Kirsten Doolittle filed the suit in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida in Jacksonville, on behalf of the Jacksonville Branch of the NAACP and the Jacksonville Brotherhood of Firefighters, an organization representing present, past, and aspiring black firefighters, after three years of efforts to resolve the allegations failed.

The committee said while Jacksonville's population is 30.7 percent African-American, only as few as 20 percent of firefighters are black and many of them are set to retire in the next two years.

"A career in fire service is one of only a few career opportunities in Jacksonville that offers job security, economic stability, and a means of promotion without a college degree," Doolittle said in a news release. "We are committed to ensuring that there is an equal playing field for African-Americans seeking to serve this community as paramedics and firefighters."

The committee pointed out that JFRD has a long history of discrimination against black employees. It said the department became subject to a consent decree in 1971 pursuant to a class action lawsuit, Coffey v. Braddy, which focused on discrimination in hiring of entry-level firefighters. The decree was amended in 1984 to require 1:1 hiring until the percentage of black firefighters equaled the percentage of blacks in the local population. The city unilaterally ceased 1:1 hiring in 1992.

On Feb. 17, 2006, the committee said, two African-American firefighters employed by JFRD opened their lockers to find nooses hanging inside. The act precipitated an investigation by the Jacksonville Human Rights Commission into the broad discriminatory practices and racially hostile work environment. The commission issued a report in August 2006 finding a widespread pattern and practice of discrimination against African-Americans in JFRD.

NAACP and JBOF filed charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in July 2008, alleging discrimination in hiring, promotion, and terms and conditions of work by JFRD. On June 5, 2009, the EEOC issued a Letter of Determination finding that the JFRD engaged in the alleged discrimination. The parties entered into mediation. As a result of the failure to reach agreement on the promotion claims, the Department of Justice filed suit against the city of Jacksonville on April 23, alleging a pattern or practice of race discrimination in promotions in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. NAACP and the JBOF have filed a motion to intervene in this action, United States of America v. Consolidated City of Jacksonville.

The Lawyers' Committee said its lawsuit focuses on JFRD's maintenance of a hiring process that results in a disparate impact on blacks.

"JFRD requires that applicants for firefighter positions take and pass the Florida State College at Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Certification Program before being eligible for hire," said Jane Dolkart, senior counsel with the Lawyers' Committee Employment Discrimination Project. "This program costs $2,900 and students are not eligible for student loans in a city where 31.1 percent of blacks live below the poverty line, compared to 18.3 percent of the general population. Additionally, hiring decisions are made by the fire chief and his staff, which have unlimited discretion in the selection of qualified candidates. This unlimited discretion allows subjective bias to creep into the hiring process."

The city has not yet commented on the lawsuit.