Cleveland Firefighter Residency Bonus Struck Down

Historically, residency requirements tethered to employment in the civil service of the City of Cleveland date back to 1931. In 2006, the General Assembly of Ohio enacted what is known as R.C. 9.481, which prohibited residency requirements as a condition of employment by a political subdivision. The constitutionality of R.C. 9.481 was upheld by the Ohio Supreme Court, which held that enabling employees of political subdivisions to live where they desire is a matter of statewide concern and that, generally, a political subdivision could not “require” an employee to reside in a specific area. Cleveland’s residency requirement, former City of Cleveland Charter Section 74(a), was struck down by the decision.

The City was not done with residency issues, however. In 2012, Cleveland voters amended Charter Section 74-1, which provides that “a person who is a bona fide resident of the City of Cleveland for at least one year from the date of filing of an application for a promotional civil service examination, who receives a passing grade on the promotional examination, shall have added to his or her raw score five points.”

The Association of Cleveland Firefighters filed a declaratory judgment proceeding against the City, seeking a determination that Section 74-1 violated the ban on residency requirements contained in R.C. 9.481. The Ohio Court of Appeals agreed with the Association, and struck down the amended charter provision.

The City argued that the five preference points were a reasonable ingredient in the calculation of a passing candidate’s merit and fitness for a supervisory position within the civil service of the City. The City offered the testimony of the Mayor’s Chief of Staff that the City benefits from supervisors who live within the boundaries of the city and are able to respond faster to emergencies, and that “to the extent that supervisors have prior understanding and knowledge of the issues that arise in city neighborhoods, they are able to give a more complete and a more informed recommendation, or make a more complete or more informed decision.”

The Court noted that “some of the qualities essential for a civil service position are impossible to measure with entire objectivity. However, a scoring preference on a competitive civil service exam is valid only if it is allied to appropriate qualifications. The City has suggested a tenuous link between the benefits of residency and the merit and fitness of a civil service promotional candidate.

“First, any argument by the City that it benefits from faster response times under Charter Section 74-1 lacks merit because the rule does not require continued residence within the City after a candidate files an application for a promotional civil service examination. Furthermore, we find the benefits suggested by the City to be measured through a completely arbitrary basis. As the Association points out, an employee who resides within the City for 20 years but moves just prior to the one-year period set forth in Section 74-1 would not receive any credit for his residency experience.

“The Association also notes that the residency experience valued by the Mayor’s Chief of Staff will, in many cases, have no practical impact because employees are often not stationed in the neighborhoods where they reside. Finally, the Association argues, and we agree, that to the extent that a promotional candidate might offer some de minimis benefit to his position based upon his knowledge of the community, such knowledge could be fairly ascertained by a competitive exam. We see no reason why a candidate’s knowledge of the needs and expectations of the residents of the City cannot be ascertained competitively. Nor do we see a valid relationship between the preference points awarded by Charter Section 74-1 and the merit and fitness of a promotional candidate.”

Association of Cleveland Firefighters v. City of Cleveland, 2013 WL 6730787 (Ohio App. 2013).