MA Civil Service Rules Against Boston Captain in Promotional Exam Delay Case

The civil service appeal of a Boston fire captain over his right to sit for an upcoming promotional examination for district chief has been denied by the Massachusetts Civil Service Commission. Captain Kevin Ranahan filed the appeal after he was denied the opportunity to take the district chief exam scheduled for March 25, 2023.

The March 25, 2023 exam is actually the rescheduling of one originally scheduled for May 21, 2022, that was postponed initially to November 17, 2022, and then to March 25. Captain Ranahan was ineligible for the May 21, 2022 date due to not enough time in grade, but would be eligible for the March 25 date.

The state’s Human Resources Division (HRD) made the determination that only those eligible for the May 21, 2022 exam could take the March 25, 2023 exam. Captain Ranahan argued that using the earlier date as a cut-off, violated civil service rules. As explained in the decision:

  • First, [Captain Ranahan] argued that the March 2023 exam is a “new” examination and, as such, he maintained that the civil service law and rules explicitly require HRD to open the registration up to additional applicants.
  • Second, [he] argued that HRD’s decision to not open the March 2023 examination up to new applicants is arbitrary and capricious, creating an unfair advantage for a now-smaller group of applicants with more time to study for a promotional examination that will form the basis for the next round of promotions.

The exam delays were due in part to the controversial decision in Tatum et al. V. Commonwealth of Massachusetts, et al., C.A. No. 0984-CV-00576 (Mass. Sup. Ct. 2022), that ruled the multiple-choice examinations used by the HRD for police promotions created a disparate impact on minorities. As a result, all examinations for police and fire were delayed while exams were redesigned.

In upholding the HRD’s decision to use eligibility for the May 21, 2022 exam for the March 25, 2023 exam, the Commission was sympathetic to Captain Ranahan’s situation, but unwilling to order his admission to the exam. Quoting from the decision:

  • The facts underlying this appeal reinforce the wide-reaching impact of the Tatum decision on those public safety employees who are part of the civil service system in Massachusetts.
  • In short, as this appeal shows, the decision reaches beyond those applicants who were scheduled to take the November 2022 (now March 2023) examination, but, rather, has also impacted many others, including the Appellant who likely planned on taking the next promotional examination for Boston District Fire Chief, which under the schedule in place as of May of 2022 would have been repeated no later than May of 2024.
  • The precarious domino effect does not stop there. The resulting extension of eligible lists, the question of whether to revive previously-revoked eligible lists, and a myriad of other related issues are confronting police and fire departments across Massachusetts.
  • This not only creates discomfort and uncertainty, it also inevitably produces winners and losers, based on how each civil service community responds to these events.
  • Here, however, [Captain Ranahan] has not shown that the civil service law and rules require HRD to register him for the March 2023 promotional examination; nor has he shown that HRD’s decision was arbitrary or capricious.
  • No section of the civil service law or rules specifically addresses the question presented in this appeal; rather, the overall scheme of the civil service system gives broad discretion to HRD when making such decisions.
  • Thus, the question before the Commission is whether HRD, exercising its broad discretion, acted arbitrarily or capriciously by deciding to limit registration for the March 2023 examination to those who registered for the May 2022 examination. “A decision is arbitrary and capricious when it lacks any rational explanation that reasonable persons might support.”
  • That is not the case here.
  • HRD has offered a sufficiently rational explanation regarding why it made the decision to limit registration to those who registered to participate in the May 2022 examination.
  • Specifically, HRD based its decision largely on the premise that, given the rather unique events that have transpired here, the May 2022 candidates should be able to take the promotional examination and have an eligible list established with the original complement of test takers as had been expected from the original administration.
  • The following explanation supports the reasonableness of HRD’s decision. If the promotional examination administered in May 2022 had been scored, an eligible list would have been established a few months later in 2022 and the Appellant most likely would not have had the opportunity to participate in a promotional examination (and be placed on an eligible list) until 2024.
  • Put another way, it is at least “reasonable” for HRD to deny the Appellant and other similarly situated individuals the option of joining the promotional list a year earlier (i.e., in 2023) than would have been the case had there been no issues with the administration of the May 2022 examination.

Here is a copy of the decision:

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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