St. Louis Firefighters Sue Over Race Discrimination in Promotions

A group of 140 St. Louis firefighters are suing over alleged race discrimination in the fire department’s promotional process. The suit was originally filed in state court last August but was removed to US District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri last week.

The 140 named plaintiffs are all candidates for promotion to either captain or battalion chief. The suit alleges that in some cases their exam scores were deliberately altered.

The St. Louis Fire Department has been the subject of numerous race discrimination suits over the years, including hiring and promotion suits. From the late 1970s until 2003, the city was under a consent decree to hire one black for every one white hired. My database lists eight class action lawsuits plus a number of individual suits involving race discrimination involving the department.

The advocacy group Firefighters Institute for Racial Equality or FIRE has been at the forefront of these suits at least as far as 1976 when it filed suit over the department’s hiring practices. That suit led to the 1 for 1 consent decree. The group claims that since the consent decree was eliminated in 2003 the city has returned to its old ways.

According to the complaint:

  • Plaintiffs are members of The Firefighters Institute for Racial Equality (“F.I.R.E.”).
  • I.R.E. is an organization representing Black firefighters in the City dedicated to promoting professional competence among fire service professionals and combating systemic racism within the City’s fire department.
  • In response to prior racial-discrimination litigation surrounding the testing procedures used to evaluate candidates for promotion in the City’s fire department, the City’s top personnel employees conducted a study of the testing components historically used by the City to determine whether those components had an adverse impact on Black promotional candidates.
  • In the study, the City found:
    • That White promotional candidates consistently scored higher than Black promotional candidates on the written test components;
    • That written tests graded on a numerical scale, rather than on a pass-fail basis, adversely impacted Black promotional candidates;
    • That written tests that were used to establish a ranking among promotional candidates adversely impacted Black promotional candidates;
    • That written test scores did not predict the success of a fire Captain or Battalion Chief in performing the duties of his or her position except when used to eliminate those who scored below a relatively low minimum score;
    • That the adverse impact on Black promotional candidates of written tests could be reduced by using written tests graded solely on a pass-fail basis with a low cut-off score and not used to rank promotional candidates; and
    • That using high cut-off scores on the performance test component of promotional tests resulted in the ranking of promotional candidates that were less likely to have an adverse impact on Black promotional candidates.
  • I.R.E. wrote to the City’s Comptroller on plaintiffs’ behalf on October 17, 2012 requesting that the City implement safeguards to protect Black promotional candidates against discrimination in the then-upcoming 2013 Captain and Battalion Chief promotional tests.
  • Acting in complete disregard of the City’s study, the Board of E&A resolution, and F.I.R.E.’s recommendations, the City’s Department of Personnel proceeded with structuring its 2013 Captain and Battalion Chief promotional tests to maximize the adverse impact of those tests on the Black promotional candidates by:
    • Including a numerically-scored written test that was not used as a cut-off on a pass or fail basis, but was used in ranking the promotional candidates;
    • Removing the written tests and grading them offsite, subject to undisclosed adjustments, although the test forms were capable of being graded on site;
    • Providing test assessors for the performance portion of the test whose racial and gender makeup did not match the candidate pool, instead being almost exclusively white and male; and
    • Refusing to video or audio record the performance components of the test.
  • The City’s grading criteria were also designed and implemented to disproportionately affect Black promotional candidates. On information and belief, this included the City altering test scores of Black promotional candidates.
  • Contrary to Sections 12 and 13 of the City’s Civil Service Rule VI and the City’s prior practices: (1) the City did not allow the Captain and Battalion Chief Candidates to inspect their ratings and test papers; (2) the City did not provide the Captain and Battalion Chief Candidates the form to be used to file an appeal; (3) the Cily did not notify the Captain and Battalion Chief Candidates that they had a right to appeal; and (4) the City did not state how many days the Captain and Battalion Chief Candidates had in which to file an appeal or to whom an appeal should be submitted.
  • The City made its first promotions to Fire Captain and Battalion Chief from the 2013 promotional list before the 10-day appeal deadline expired. All available promotional slots were filled before the appeal deadline had expired.
  • Because the City’s Captain and Battalion Chief examinations were intended to adversely affect Black candidates relative to their White competitors, or were designed with reckless disregard of the City’s understanding that they would adversely affect the Black promotional candidates, the City’s so-called appeals process disproportionately affected the Black promotional candidates.

The plaintiffs are seeking damages, attorneys fees, and a court order requiring them to be moved up the respective promotional list and receive the seniority they would have received.

Here is a copy on the complaint: Green v City of St Louis

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 45 years of fire service experience and 35 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, 4th ed. 2022) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.

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