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U.S. appeals court overturns finding of intentional hiring bias at FDNY

Firefighters put out a live fire during an experiment on Governors Island, in New York, July 3, 2012. REUTERS/Andrew Burton
Firefighters put out a live fire during an experiment on Governors Island, in New York, July 3, 2012. REUTERS/Andrew Burton

By Jessica Dye

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A federal appeals panel on Tuesday overturned a judge's ruling that the New York City Fire Department intentionally discriminated against minority applicants and pared down a court-ordered plan aimed at boosting diversity in the FDNY.

The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals majority said U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis in Brooklyn erred when he found "copious evidence" that city officials had intended to discriminate against black and Hispanic applicants during the hiring process.

The majority said Garaufis erred by labeling the city's rebuttal evidence "incredible" without hearing any witnesses, and ordered that the intentional discrimination claim be tried before a different judge to counter any appearance of bias. The panel, however, rejected a request from the city to remove Garaufis from the case entirely.

"We have no doubt that Judge Garaufis is an entirely fair-minded jurist who could impartially adjudicate the remaining issues in this case, but we think a reasonable observer would have substantial doubts whether the judge, having branded the city's evidence ‘incredible,' could thereafter be impartial in assessing the truth of conflicting evidence at a bench trial," U.S. Circuit Judge Jon Newman wrote in the ruling.

The appeals panel also ordered changes to a sweeping injunction issued by Garaufis requiring the FDNY to overhaul hiring and recruitment procedures. For example, the court reversed Garaufis' order that the city hire several outside employment consultants and put hiring-related communications in writing.

The ruling is the latest development in a bitter legal battle stemming from a 2007 lawsuit filed by the U.S. Department of Justice and joined by a fraternal organization of black firefighters, the Vulcan Society. The lawsuit claimed the FDNY's hiring exams and practices had shut out minorities from firefighter jobs. The named defendants were the city, the FDNY, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

In a series of previous rulings, Garaufis agreed. He held that between 1999 and 2007, the department's written examination had "discriminatory effects" on minority applicants and ordered broad changes to the FDNY's recruitment, screening and hiring practices and appointed a monitor to oversee the city's compliance.

Both sides hailed the appeals court's ruling as a victory.

"We are extremely pleased that the 2nd Circuit recognized significant problems in the manner in which the district court handled the case," New York City Corporation Counsel Michael Cardozo said in a statement.

A lawyer for the Vulcan Society, Richard Levy, said "the fact that the court in effect kept the monitor, and provisions having to do with monitoring the actions and conduct of the FDNY, was really a confirmation and a victory for us."

(Reporting by Jessica Dye; Editing by Paul Thomasch and Dan Grebler)

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