Exam Cheating Remedy Went Too Far

A group of firefighters brought a class action lawsuit against the City of Atlanta alleging that the City breached its employment contracts with the firefighters as well as an obligation under state law to provide a fair and impartial promotional process by failing to prevent cheating on a fire lieutenant promotional exam. After a jury returned a verdict in favor of the firefighters finding that the exam had been tainted by cheating and that the City was liable, the trial court crafted a permanent injunction that contained mandatory instructions regarding how the City must implement a re-test.

Among other things, the Court’s injunction mandated that all individuals who scored 84 or higher on the first exam would be ineligible for promotion if their re-test score was two standard deviations (24 points) lower than their first score, and further provided that all individuals who scored 90 or higher on the first exam would immediately have their provisional promotions revoked. The Court’s injunction promptly brought an appeal from another group of firefighters, all of whom scored 90 or higher on the first exam. The high-scoring firefighters challenged the provisions of the injunction that identified them as “probable cheaters,” singled them out for demotion, and imposed special requirements on them relative to promotions following the re-test.

The Georgia Supreme Court agreed with the high-scoring firefighters that the injunction went too far. The Court found it important that “the jury was not asked to determine which firefighters had cheated, nor did it. Nevertheless, the trial court crafted a permanent injunction that treated the high-scoring firefighters as if they were parties to the lawsuit. The injunction not only prevented the use of the compromised test for permanent promotional decisions and specified how the City was to implement a re-test, but also singled out individual firefighters for disparate treatment based solely on their test scores on the contested exam.

“Specifically, the trial court singled out the top six scorers on the compromised test for demotion and imposed additional eligibility requirements tied to the re-test on these firefighters as well as on eight other high scorers. By identifying this small group of 14 firefighters as probable cheaters, the trial court’s judgment immediately cast a cloud on their reputations. Moreover, whether identified by name or by their individual scores, the trial court’s judgment contains individual findings of guilt and directs punitive action against the high-scoring firefighters distinct from the class-wide retesting remedies entered against the City.

“We further find that the trial court abused its discretion by crafting an injunction which singled out some of the high-scoring firefighters for demotion and required the City to impose judicial disciplinary action against them. It is a principle of general application in Anglo-American jurisprudence that one is not bound by a judgment in a litigation in which he is not designated as a party. The opportunity to be heard is an essential requisite of due process of law in judicial proceedings. Trial courts may not grant an enforcement order or injunction so broad as to make punishable the conduct of persons who act independently and whose rights have not been adjudged according to law.”

Barham v. City of Atlanta, 2013 WL 398999 (Ga. 2013).