Declining Economy No Reason To Extend Fire Department’s Consent Decree

The Cleveland Fire Department entered into a racial discrimination consent decree in the 1970s, when blacks accounted for four percent of the firefighters in the Department, but consisted of 40 percent of the population living in the city. The consent decree set as a goal a fire department with a 33 1/3 percent minority makeup.

In 2000, a federal court judge found that 26 percent of the City’s firefighters were from minority groups. When the consent decree was on the verge of expiring, the City and a group of minority citizens known as “Vanguards of Cleveland” sought an extension of the terms of the consent decree. A separate group, known as “Cleveland Fire Fighters For Fair Hiring Practices,” opposed the extension of the consent decree and applied to the Court to extend it until the 33 1/3 percent target was met.

The federal Court declined to extend the consent decree. The Court found that “the City has produced substantial evidence demonstrating that it extended its best efforts to achieve the hiring goals. Indeed, the record reflects that all parties use their best efforts to produce dynamic change, and, for this, the parties should be commended. By all accounts, the City has devised and implemented a plan for the recruitment of minority firefighter candidates, including but not limited to, programs at the Martin Luther King High School, and in the Cleveland Municipal School District, designed to increase interest in pursuing a career in firefighting. Emblematic of all the circumstances that have prohibited the City from reaching the goals in the consent decree is the fact that the City has not been able to hire a single person emerging from those programs.

“The record reflects that changes relating to, among other things, this nation’s declining economy have taken place, which could not have been anticipated at the time the consent decree was entered into. The firefighters last hired were from an eligibility list that is now a decade old, the last fire academy was held in 2001, layoffs followed thereafter, and the DROP program caused a substantial number of firefighters who would have otherwise retired to continue in their current positions. These circumstances were all unforeseen and, hence, despite a good faith effort, the City has not satisfied the goals in the consent decree.

“The fact that the consent decree allows for an extension does not mean that this Court is bound to grant it. The history of this case makes clear that past injustices indeed existed in the City of Cleveland with respect to the hiring of minority firefighters. However, the Court has found that the City has made a good faith effort to comply with the remedy designed to right those wrongs. The evidence demonstrates that it was not the City’s lack of effort, but rather circumstances beyond its control, that resulted in it falling short of satisfying the goals of the consent decree. The Court finds that judicial monitoring is no longer a necessity.”

Cleveland Fire Fighters For Fair Hiring Practices v. City of Cleveland, 2009 WL 2602366 (N.D. Ohio 2009).

This article appears in the October 2009 issue