SAN FRANCISCO, CA – A San Francisco jury awarded 15 firefighters a total of $3.7 million Monday after agreeing that the Fire Department had discriminated against them based on their age when they were judged to have failed a promotional exam for lieutenant five years ago.
The firefighters – three of whom have retired – accused the city of arbitrarily altering dozens of test scores to the 2008 test and shredding scoring documents before firefighters could file a legal challenge. They challenged the exam process as skewed against firefighters who were over 40.
The jury agreed, voting 9-3 in favor of the plaintiffs. A unanimous verdict is not required in a civil case.
“The exam unit of the San Francisco Fire Department dropped the ball,” said one of the jurors who voted with the majority, but who asked not to be identified.
Another juror said the city should not have altered test scores and ignored other problems with how the test was graded. “They said all of it (the problems) would balance out. That didn’t sit well with us – that’s not how to score an exam.”
Murlene Randle, the firefighters’ attorney, said, “Justice was finally done. Now I would hope that there would be some change in the department, that they actually hear that the jury has spoken and do something about it.”
Randle said responsibility ultimately lies with Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White and other city officials. “The fish rots from the head down,” she said.
The city had no immediate response to the verdict. “We’re evaluating our options,” said Matt Dorsey, spokesman for the city attorney’s office.
Questions surrounding Fire Department promotional exams, including tests for lieutenant, battalion chief and assistant chief, have dogged the city since 2008, prompting a string of unresolved lawsuits. The one over the lieutenant’s test was the first to go to trial.
The plaintiffs each received back pay, future pay as if they had been promoted to lieutenant and $108,000 for emotional distress.
The firefighters had argued that the test’s answer key contained faulty information and that scores were changed by city officials in secret, without consulting the experts who prepared the key and outsiders who graded the exam.
The lieutenant’s test – the first such exam in a decade – was taken by 745 firefighters, fewer than a third of whom passed.
Randle told the jury that the exam process had been “fatally flawed.”
Deputy City Attorney Ruth Bond told the jury that the test process may have been imperfect, but that it was a fair way of evaluating who would make a good lieutenant.
“The city ran a fair and objective process,” Bond told the jury. “The city followed industry standards and state guidelines.”
Randle pointed to Hayes-White, who testified during the trial, as being ultimately responsible for the shortcomings in the exam process. The chief, she said, should have intervened to keep the process on track.
Hayes-White was not in court for the verdicts and did not return a call seeking comment.
One of the plaintiffs said he hopes the suit brings reforms to the promotional exam process.
“The jurors sent a message to the city – that they should be fair about the testing procedures and that when something occurs that is wrong, try to correct it, don’t cover it up,” said Carlos Hoy, a 27-year firefighter who was awarded $252,000 in compensation and damages. “That will be up to the chief of the department, now, to do the right thing.”