Firefighter Applicants Lose Claim For Damages In Lawsuit Challenging Consent Decree

In 1976, the United States government sued the City of St. Louis alleging racially discriminatory hiring and promotional practices. The lawsuit was resolved by the entry of a complex consent decree providing that the City would hire qualified black applicants for at least 50 percent of the vacancies for the entry-level firefighter job.

The consent decree was still in effect when Michael Martinez and Eric Deeken, unsuccessful white applicants for entry-level firefighter positions, brought lawsuits against the City alleging they were victims of unlawful reverse racial discrimination. A federal court ruled that the consent decree was constitutional when entered but dissolved the decree because its stated goal of racial parity had been achieved by June 2002 at the latest. A jury later awarded Martinez $5,000, primarily for emotional distress, and Deeken $157,989 for lost wages, benefits, and other damages. The Court awarded Martinez placed in the job of firefighter retroactive to March 2000, an additional $40,061.09 for retroactive lost wages, and related lump sum payments.

The City appealed the award of damages and the requirement that it hire Martinez; the City did not challenge the dissolution of the consent decree. The federal Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the City’s arguments, and overturned that portion of the trial court’s award ordering the payment of damages and the hiring of Martinez.

The Court found that an employer cannot be liable for simply complying with a consent decree: “The significance of the Court’s ruling that the decree was constitutionally valid when entered cannot be overstated. The decree mandated a 50 percent hiring policy during the life of the decree. Thus, for the period prior to the dissolution of the decree in November 2003, the Court has granted substantial monetary and equitable relief for actions taken by the City to comply with a valid court order. Martinez and Deeken have not cited, and we have not found, any case granting such relief.

“In these circumstances, we conclude that the Court erred in granting monetary and equitable relief for the City’s hiring decisions before the dissolution of the decree. Had the City not complied with the decree, for example, had it violated the 50 percent requirement by hiring Martinez and Deeken, it would have faced a lawsuit by adversely-affected black applicants and possibly contempt sanctions by the Court. Martinez and Deeken properly sued to challenge the decree’s continuing validity, and the Court properly invoked its jurisdiction to modify or dissolve the decree. But compliance with this valid Title VII remedial consent decree until it was dissolved, like compliance with a bona fide affirmative action plan, is a complete defense to the pre-dissolution claims for damages and other individualized relief.”

Martinez v. City of St. Louis, 539 F.3d 857 (8th Cir. 2008).

This article appears in the December 2008 issue