North Hudson Regional Fire Rescue Residency Rule Struck Down

On Tuesday, the US 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals handed down an important fire service ruling involving residency and discrimination.

The case involved the North Hudson Regional Fire & Rescue in New Jersey. The department had a residency requirement that all applicants must be a resident of one of the five communities making up the regional district. The district is 69.6% Hispanic, 22.9% white, and 3.4% African American. The department is 79.5% white, 19.2% Hispanic, and .6% African American.

Suit was brought by the NAACP on behalf of African American applicants claiming that the residency requirement created a disparate impact. The department’s defense was that opening the process up to non-residents would potentially disadvantage Hispanics and other minorities by allowing more white applicants from other towns to apply.

The court noted that some New Jersey fire departments use residency requirements to enhance minority employment opportunities. The court even referenced a 1977 race discrimination case brought by the Federal government against twelve NJ municipalities, where the jurisdictions entered into consent decrees that mandated the use of residency requirements to enhance minority recruitment. Those consent decrees remain in effect today, some 30+ years later.

But the 3rd Circuit rejected the use of a residency requirement by NHRFR in this case finding that it served to limit African Americans from applying to become firefighters, and thereby caused the disparate impact. The court further concluded that the use of the residency requirement could not be justified as a business necessity.

Ultimately, the court’s decision appears to have rested on the conclusions of two statisticians who served as expert witnesses in the case. The two determined through some convoluted sort of reasoning that the residency requirement was responsible for the small numbers of  African Americans working for NHRFR. [Please don’t take my word on the convoluted reasoning part – try to read it yourself and then you tell me… see the link to the decision below]

Following the ruling, the NAACP’s attorney, David Rose, was quoted as saying “Obviously, we’re pleased”. Hummmm…. I can’t help but wonder if he and the NAACP realize just what the long term result of their “victory” will be in terms of the applicant pool. It is quite likely NHRFR will now see a dramatic increase in applicants from primarily white suburban and rural areas who previously were prohibited from applying. Personally, I think the NAACP may have (which cliché should I use) won the battle but lost the war… shot themselves in the foot.

Attorney Tom Kobin who represents NHRFR, indicated he will be requesting a en banc hearing before the full 3rd Circuit. Barring that, the case may end up at the US Supreme Court.

Here is a copy of the ruling:   NAACP v No Hudson      (happy reading – it’s a tough one…)

More on the story.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.

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