On June 9, 2014, the United States Department of Justice filed a complaint in the Western District of Texas on behalf of African-American and Hispanic applicants to entry-level firefighter positions against the City of Austin. The plaintiff alleged that since at least 2011, the fire department's practice of requiring applicants to pass an examination in order to be considered for entry-level firefighter positions has had a disparate impact on the hiring of African-Americans and Hispanics, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. They seek injunctive relief to stop the defendant's discriminatory hiring practices.
Specifically, they alleged that the African-Americans and Hispanics passed the 2012 test at a rate that was statistically significantly lower than white applicants, and that by only selecting the top 1500 candidates to move on to interview stage of the process, the City of Austin increased this disparity. The city also used the scores as a component of an applicant's ranking on the fire department hiring list, leading to African-Americans and Hispanics being processed for hire at a significantly lower rate than whites. They also alleged that a similar testing and ranking process used in 2013 will have a similar disparate impact, that these tests are not essential to the duties of firefighting, and that there are alternative means for screening candidates that would not have a discriminatory impact.
Also on June 9, 2014, the US and the City of Austin offered a joint settlement agreement pending a fairness hearing before the court. The agreement provides that: 1) the city will develop a new nondiscriminatory test for screening applicants but that the city can use parts of its previous tests for filling up to 90 open positions immediately; 2) The city will provide back pay to African-American and Hispanic applicants from 2012 who claim to have passed the work-related parts of the test but not the unrelated parts; 3) The city will make 30 priority appointments of Hispanics and African-Americans (the shortfall of diversity candidates in 2012 due to the discriminatory hiring practices), with retroactive seniority dates; and 4) There will be a fairness hearing to rule on the legality and equitability of the agreement, with any objections from interested parties such as the firefighters' union and those who may claim back pay. The parties also proposed a second fairness hearing for the court to approve or modify any individual relief awards. As proposed, the court will enforce the decree for four years, until the city's back-pay obligations are satisfied, or until the implementation of a new, nondiscriminatory testing procedure; whichever comes later but no more than eight years.
On June 11, 2014, the District Court (Judge Lee Yeakel) granted the motion for provisional approval of the consent decree and scheduled a fairness hearing on the consent decree.
The Austin Firefighters Association (AFA) filed a motion to intervene in the case but on September 15, 2014, the Court (Judge Yeakel) denied their motion because at the time of the suit the AFA did not have a current collective bargaining agreement with the city. Furthermore, the AFA failed to show that they had an interest that could not be satisfied by other means, such as collective bargaining and the objection process within the settlement agreement.
On October 18, 2014, the Court (Judge Yeakel) denied the AFA's motion to reconsider their motion to intervene, at which point the AFA appealed to the Fifth Circuit (docket # 14-51132). In a per curiam opinion, the Fifth Circuit denied the AFA's motions to stay the proceedings in the lower court, and to expedite their appeal. The appeal is ongoing.
On October 29, 2014, the first of the fairness hearings was held before Judge Yeakel. The AFA filed an objection and all parties are awaiting an opinion from the Court.Benjamin St. Pierre - 11/02/2014