26 September 2023

UNITED STATES: Long running legal action ends exams

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The fallout from legal action that begun 13 years ago has resulted in the American State of Massachusetts cancelling promotional examinations for firefighters and declaring recently held examinations for police null and void.

The case in question is Tatum et al v. Commonwealth of Massachusetts, a suit from several Black or Hispanic police officers filed in 2009, which claimed the examinations disadvantaged minority test-takers, leading to lower scores and therefore delayed or missed promotions through the centralised and highly regimented process used by many police and fire departments.

Given the vagaries of the US legal system, the matter was not completed and a decision made until last month (October), when Judge Douglas Wilkins issued a blistering finding against the State Human Resources Division (HRD).

“The evidence is very clear,” Judge Wilkins said.

“It defeats any justification for HRD’s heavy reliance upon biased examinations to identify the best candidates for promotion,” he said.

“Moreover, HRD knew of clearly superior assessment methods, but continued to use the same, unnecessarily discriminatory format anyway.”

Judge Wilkins said the massive amount of evidence proving the known and unjustified disparate impact of HRD’s format “leaves no doubt in this court’s mind that the Commonwealth has interfered with the plaintiffs’ rights to consideration for promotion to police sergeant without bias due to race or national origin”.

The examinations generally happen once a year, and one — already delayed due to unrelated issues — for Boston firefighters to become District Chiefs, was scheduled to happen later this month (November).

International Association of Fire Fighters Local 718 Head, Sam Dillon said his members “had the rug pulled out from underneath them”.

He said the postponement was part of a State move to get firefighters out of the State Public Service and the protections it affords.

“The State Civil Service Commission needs to go ahead with these examinations,” Mr Dillon said.

“This is a case about cops — I don’t see the relationship.”

Head of the Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts Union, Rich MacKinnon said his organisation had engaged an attorney to file an emergency order to “investigate this matter — specifically why the police case meant that firefighter exams have to stop”.

Meanwhile, the 2009 court case drags on with a further hearing to determine liability, and a second phase of the trial to see what the judge will order as a consequence of the new ruling.

That will not happen until 20 March next year.

Boston, 12 November 2022

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