Byline: Steve Patterson & Timothy J. Gibbons
Jacksonville could be sued by the U.S. Justice Department as early as today over a government finding that firefighter promotion tests discriminated against African-Americans from 2004 to last year.
The department's Civil Rights Division wrote last month it concluded the city "had engaged in a pattern or practice of employment discrimination" and said the division had authorized attorneys to go to court.
"The United States will file its complaint no later than April 20," read the letter by Delora Kennebrew, chief of the employment litigation section.
Federal lawyers concluded that promotions tests for four ranks - engineer, lieutenant, captain and district chief in the department's fire suppression division - had unfairly hindered black firefighters' advancement.
To make up for that, the Justice Department wants the city to change its promotion practices and provide "make-whole relief." That would include job offers, back pay with interest and changes in seniority for firefighters harmed by tests that were discriminatory, according to the letter.
The International Association of Firefighters also will be named in the suit, Kennebrew wrote, because it negotiates with the city over terms of promotion tests. Union President Randy Wyse did not return a message left Thursday afternoon seeking comment.
Kennebrew wrote the city that questions in its written tests were "not sufficiently job-related for the positions in question" and resulted in disparate effects upon African-Americans being tested.
City General Counsel Cindy Laquidara would not acknowledge receipt of the letter and said a letter like that legally should not be in circulation.
But she said the city is undergoing a set of reviews and analyses that would be normal procedure in cases where a federal discrimination finding had been made.
She said she didn't expect the matter to be resolved by today's deadline.
"It takes more than 30 days on a slip-and-fall case, never mind a case of this specificity," Laquidara said.
She said the city normally would react to a discrimination finding by seeking an expert statistical review of test results, then analyzing how the findings would fit within current law. The city would talk with Justice officials next, Laquidara said, and if needed talk to local elected officials about their openness to policy changes and financial settlements.
The Justice Department formally opened its investigation in December 2009, saying at the time it was also checking for discrimination against Hispanic and female firefighters. The letter last month offered no findings about those two groups.
The new lawsuit threat follows more than 40 years of courtroom fights over black participation in the fire department. Three of those cases were revitalized Thursday, when attorneys for the city and firefighters met for talks aimed at reaching a settlement.
Two of the cases have been in mediation since 2009, including a 1971 case U.S. District Judge Timothy Corrigan reopened that year.
The other one was brought by Rufus Smith and 23 other firefighters last year.
The reopened case charges Jacksonville with violating a 1982 hiring decree that required the city to hire one black firefighter for every white firefighter until the racial makeup of the department mirrored that of the city.
The city said it met that goal in 1992 and stopped the one-for-one hiring arrangement, but the plaintiffs say it can't unilaterally make that determination. …