Court Dissolves Chicago Fire Department’s 42-Year-Old Consent Decree

The City of Chicago and the US Department of Justice have agreed to dissolve a 42-year-old consent decree that has governed promotions within the Chicago Fire Department since 1980. The race-based consent decree governed the promotional process from engineer through battalion chief within the department for the past four decades.

The consent decree arose out of two lawsuits, United States v. City of Chicago, C.A. No. 73-C-661 (N.D. Ill., Mar. 15, 1973) and United States v. Albrecht, 80-C-1590 (N.D. Ill., Mar. 31, 1980). The 1973 case alleged race discrimination in hiring and promotions, while the 1980 case was limited to promotions. The consent decree incorporated promotional concerns from both suits and is commonly referred to as the Albrecht Decree. It required the city to conduct a job analysis for each position being tested, consistent with The Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures, 20 C.F.R. § 1607 et seq. (1978). Thereafter, the testing and evaluation process was to be professionally validated, with the entire process being overseen by the court.

The DOJ and the city joint sought to dissolve the decree. Quoting from their joint memorandum:

  • Dissolution of a consent decree or order of settlement is appropriate when a court finds the defendant has “complied in good faith” with the order and “the vestiges of past discrimination ha[ve] been eliminated to the extent practicable.”
  • [T]he Sixth Circuit, in Heath, set forth several factors that should be considered by a court weighing whether to terminate supervision over a decree, including “(1) any specific terms providing for continued supervision and jurisdiction over the consent decree; (2) the consent decree’s underlying goals; (3) whether there has been compliance with prior court orders; (4) whether defendants made a good faith effort to comply; (5) the length of time the consent decree has been in effect; and (6) the continuing efficacy of the consent decree’s enforcement.”
  • The purpose of the Decree is clear – to increase Black and Hispanic representation throughout the CFD’s promotional ranks Each promotional rank in the CFD has experienced a substantial increase in Black and Hispanic representation.
  • The change in the minority composition of the ranks supports a conclusion that the Decree’s purpose has been served and that this factor weighs in favor of dissolution.
  • Minority representation among Battalion Chiefs increased by more than 20 percentage points, from 2.05% in 1980, to 25.59% in 2020.
  • Minority representation in the Captain rank increased by more than 20 percentage points, from 5.08% in 1980, to 27.83% in 2017.
  • Minority representation in the Lieutenant rank increased by almost 20 percentage points, from 5.94% in 1980, to 25.88% in 2020.
  • Minority representation in the Engineer rank increased by more than 20 percentage points, from 8.49% in 1980, to 29.35% in 2020.
  • The change in composition of the promotional ranks supports a conclusion that the Decree’s purpose has been served. This factor weighs in favor of dissolution.
  • Following entry of the Decree in 1980, the Court has not entered any subsequent orders with which the City has not complied.
  • Accordingly, the third Heath factor weighs in favor of dissolution.
  • The City has also complied in good faith with the Decree and its purpose.
  • The City’s good-faith compliance with the Decree and its purpose is also evident by its actions in support of the United States’ efforts to assess progress made toward achieving the Decree’s long-range goal.
  • The cooperation provided by the City has been essential to understanding the degree to which Black and Hispanic representation in the promotional ranks of the CFD has increased over the past forty years.
  • The City’s good-faith efforts to comply with the Decree are evident through its efforts to develop promotion selection devices that are consistent with both Title VII and the Uniform Guidelines, the City’s ongoing cooperation with United States’ efforts to evaluate progress, and the training and tuition reimbursement it makes available to those seeking promotion. As such, the fourth Heath factor is satisfied and weighs in favor of dissolution of the Decree.
  • For the fifth Heath factor (i.e., the length of time the consent decree has been in effect), it is noteworthy that institutional consent decrees are “[f]rom the very first, . . . intended as . . . temporary measure[s] to remedy past discrimination.”
  • The purpose of the Decree has been served over the forty years it has been in effect. The time has come to restore control of CFD promotions to the City. This Heath factor is satisfied, and weighs in favor of dissolution of the Albrecht Decree.
  • Dissolution of the Albrecht Decree will not limit or hamper a person’s ability to challenge alleged employment discrimination in the CFD.

US District Court Chief Judge Rebecca R. Pallmeyer granted the mutual request and dissolved the decree on June 16, 2022. Here is a copy of her order:

Here is a copy of the joint memorandum:

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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