Firefighters Discriminated Against by Test Can Be Promoted

Charles W. Miller & Associates

In Kentucky and other states, employers must be careful to avoid discriminatory practices — such as refusing to hire or promote on the basis of race, national origin, gender, age, religion, or disability. As a result, many employers have turned to solutions like standardized testing to determine a candidate’s eligibility. The theory is that such tests will provide an objective assessment of the candidate’s skills and knowledge, regardless of background. Unfortunately, sometimes these tests can produce the harmful results that they were meant to prevent.

In Howe v. City of Akron, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals considered a case where an “objective” test ended up discriminating equally against black and white candidates. The case involved promotion procedures of the Akron, Ohio fire department: for promoting employees to captain and lieutenant positions, the department used a 100-question multiple choice test. The top three scorers would then be chosen for an interview. The results were that while 75% of each race and age group passed the test, white people were promoted to lieutenant at a higher rate over black people — 36% versus 20%. However, the results were reversed with captain positions — 71% of black people were promoted versus 27% white people.

In 2006, 23 employees who were not promoted sued the city under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, claiming disparate impact. In 2008, the district court judge, on the advice of the jury, found in favor of the employees and awarded them damages in equal amounts: each lieutenant candidate received $9,000 in compensatory damages and $72,000 in front pay, while each captain candidate received $10,000 in compensatory damages and $80,000 in front pay. However, the district court granted the City of Akron’s request for a new trial for damages because of the jury’s choice to award equal amounts, despite the employees’ different circumstances. The court also issued an injunction requiring the City to promote the employees no later than July 2011.

The City eventually appealed to the Sixth Circuit, arguing that there was not enough evidence that its test produced a disparate impact, and that the district court abused its discretion by issuing the injunction. Because the district court had not yet issued a final decision on the disparate impact claim, the Sixth Circuit looked at only whether the lower court had abused its discretion.

The Sixth Circuit considered the standard for issuing a preliminary injunction: whether the “movant” (party seeking the injunction) is likely to prevail on the merits of the case; whether the movant would suffer irreparable injury without the injunction; whether the injunction would cause substantial harm to the other party; and whether the injunction would be in the public interest. The Sixth Circuit concluded that the employees had met the burden for a preliminary injunction in that they were substantially likely to succeed on their disparate impact claim; that the employees would suffer irreparable injury if they were not promoted because they would not be able to gain the experience to move to the next rank; the City would not be substantially harmed by the injunction; and there was no evidence that promotions would harm the public interest.

Ultimately, this case shows that even “neutral” measures of competence can lead to certain groups being discriminated against. That is why both employers and employees must always be on the alert, and employers must act quickly to correct any tests that have a disparate impact on a particular group. Meanwhile, if you believe that you are being discriminated against in hiring or promotion, find an experienced Kentucky employment law attorney to represent your interests.

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