Connecticut Suit Over Merit Promotional Testing to Proceed

A lawsuit brought by four Stamford, Connecticut firefighters challenging changes to the city’s promotional process, will proceed over the objection of the city. Lieutenants Kevin Dingle and Bruce Wagoner, along with firefighters Robert Pickering and Brian Whitbread filed suit last year naming the city of Stamford, the city’s personnel commission, Kathryn Emmett, Clemon Williams and the city of Stamford’s board of fire commissioners as defendants.

The suit claims the city altered the promotional process in an effort to address a disparate impact on African-American and Hispanic candidates, but in addressing the disparate impact  violated the city charter and state law that mandates a merit selection process. Their argument as explained in the ruling is:

  • According to relevant portions of the city’s charter, … General Statutes §7-414[4] and the city’s classified service rules, whenever a vacancy occurs in city employment, it must be filled via a merit selection process.
  • Specifically, under the “rule of three,” the successful candidate must be chosen from the top three ranking applicants based upon an examination.
  • In June 2015, following an entry-level firefighter test that was deemed to have resulted in a disparate impact on African-American and Hispanic candidates, the city made changes to its classified service rules.
  • Now, the city would round the scores of the candidates up or down to whole numbers, and then band together applicants with similar scores.
  • Thereafter, the city interpreted the “rule of three” to cover not three individual people but rather three groups of people.
  • On July 25, 2017, the city gave written examinations for individuals interested in receiving a promotion to fire lieutenant and fire captain.
  • Dingle and Wagoner were eligible for promotion to fire captain and Pickering and Whitbread were eligible to be promoted to fire lieutenant, respectively.
  • Pursuant to a memorandum of understanding between the plaintiffs’ union and the city, the written examination counted for 35 percent of the total score with respect to the total assessment of the candidate, whereas the oral interview constituted the remaining 65 percent. According to the plaintiffs, after all of the applicants’ scores were rounded and banded, there were several “artificial ties” that “misrepresent[ed] the candidates’ relative excellence to the appointing authorities.”
  • As a result, all of the plaintiffs were “passed over” for promotion in favor of “less qualified” candidates.
  • These appointments became effective on November 2, 2017.
  • The plaintiffs contend that this practice violates the city charter, the city’s classified services rules as well as governing Connecticut statutes.
  • Consequently, the plaintiffs allege that they have suffered economic damages resulting from their loss of potential employment promotions and seniority.

The complaint originally had five state law counts, two of which had previously been dismissed. The city sought to strike the remaining three counts. Connecticut Superior Court Judge Barbara N. Bellis granted the city’s request as to Count III (an application for a writ of mandamus against the city), but denied the request as to the other counts (Count I – violating the city charter and Count IV – request for a declaratory judgment against the city). In addition, Judge Bellis agreed to limit several of the firefighters’ damage requests.

The reasoning behind the judge’s ruling would not be of interest to most firefighters, and even some of our firefighter-lawyers may find it to be a bit mind-numbing.  For those hearty souls, here is a copy of the ruling:

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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