Appeals Court Finds Reverse Bias Birmingham Fire Department Illegally Employed Quotas, Judges Rule

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A federal appeals court panel sided with white firefighters in a reverse bias claim, dealing a potential blow to hiring and promotion goals based too rigidly on race in the city.

The three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously found that the Birmingham Fire Department's promotion system illegally uses racial quotas to eliminate past discrimination.

The city had no black firefighters until 1968.

With the help of a 1981 consent decree that allowed race-based promotions, about one-third of the department's 680 employees are black. There are more than 50 black supervisors, including one chief.

But the appeals court struck down the formula Wednesday that led to many of those promotions, saying it resulted in promotions being made "woodenly and reflexively in rigid adherence to a quota system."

Raymond Fitzpatrick Jr., an attorney for white firefighters, said Thursday: "It's a signal that the kind of one-for-one quotas that were popular in the '70s . . . don't work anymore."

An attorney for black and women firefighters said the court misunderstood the promotion system, which he denied uses quotas.

"I think the only safe thing you can say about this is that this is not the last chapter," said Robert D. Joffe of New York. The U.S. Supreme Court will be asked to hear the case, he said.

The dispute already has been before the high court. In 1989, it cleared the way for 14 white firefighters to sue the city.

In 1981, the city set a long-term goal of having blacks fill 28 percent of the positions in each city employment category. …