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Court clears city in black firefighter hiring case

Appeals-court ruling: 'City did not lie or conceal any information'

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – In an issue that goes back decades, a federal appeals court said Tuesday that the city of Jacksonville should not be held in contempt for its handling of an agreement that required hiring more black firefighters.

The case stemmed from a 1982 court-approved agreement, known as a consent decree, that required the city to begin hiring an equal number of black and white firefighters. Jacksonville was required to follow that hiring practice until the ratio of black firefighters to white firefighters matched the city's overall racial makeup.

Jacksonville stopped following the consent decree in 1992 without going back to court, saying it had met the hiring requirement. That was followed by a "dramatic" drop in the hiring of black firefighters during the next five years, said Tuesday's ruling by a panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Plaintiffs in the case went to court in 2007 seeking to have the city held in contempt for not following the consent decree since 1992. Settlement discussions lasted from 2007 to 2013 but were ultimately unsuccessful, Tuesday's ruling said.

A federal district judge later ruled in favor of the city on the contempt issue, finding that the plaintiffs waited too long --- from 1992 to 2007 --- before going back to court. The judge also dissolved the consent decree, at least in part because of changes in affirmative-action laws over the years.

The panel of the appeals court Tuesday upheld the district judge's ruling. It cited issues such as a 1993 letter from the president of the Jacksonville Brotherhood of Firefighters, which represents minority firefighters, questioning the city's decision to stop using the hiring practice included in the consent decree.

The appeals court also cited a 1997 Florida Times-Union report about a drop in the number of black firefighters being hired and a 1999 ordinance that sought to remove obstacles to minority hiring --- though it also noted that the hiring of black firefighters remained low after 1999.

Tuesday's 21-page ruling backed the district judge's finding that "the plaintiffs' inexcusable delay unduly prejudiced the city's ability to defend itself, because unclear memories and incomplete documents made it impossible to determine whether the city was, in fact, in contempt when it ended compliance in 1992."

"The city did not lie or conceal any information --- it was true that the city had stopped complying with the decree because it believed that it had fulfilled its duties under the decree," said the appeals-court ruling, written by Judge John M. Rogers and joined by judges Gerald Tjoflat and Stanley Marcus. "These individuals (black firefighters) could have inquired further about the propriety of the city's ending its compliance with the consent decree --- especially given the fact that they noticed that African-Americans were unrepresented in new hires --- but did not. Armed with the information that the city had stopped complying with the decree without first seeking the court's permission, the plaintiffs could have immediately gone to court. If the plaintiffs perceived the city's responses as giving them 'the runaround,' this provided all the more reason for them to take their grievances to the district court immediately."

But in a brief filed last year, attorneys for the plaintiffs said the impact of the city's decisions "remains and taints the city and class plaintiffs to this day."

"There is and has been since 1992 a serious dearth of African-American firefighters at the (Jacksonville Fire & Rescue Department), until these contempt proceedings commenced," the brief said. "As argued by appellants (plaintiffs) throughout this case, and likewise undisputed, most of the African-American hires occurred prior to 1992, when the city actually appeared to attempt to comply with the decree: when it walked away in 1992, only one black was hired in five years. It is further undisputed that the African-Americans hired in that time period have either retired or are ready to retire."