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City must hire 111 bypassed black firefighter candidates, court rules

Handy Johnsoutside firehouse 40th Dearborn last May.  |  Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

Handy Johnson outside the firehouse at 40th and Dearborn last May. | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

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Updated: August 20, 2011 12:32AM

The Chicago Fire Department must hire 111 bypassed black firefighter candidates — and distribute “tens of millions of dollars” in damages to 6,000 others who will never get that chance — a federal appeals court ruled Friday, upholding a landmark ruling.

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in a 9-to-0 decision, that, contrary to the city’s contention, African-American candidates hadn’t waited too long before filing a lawsuit that accused the city of discriminating against them for the way it handled a 1995 firefighter’s entrance exam.

On Friday, the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that ruling and sent the case back to the trial court to implement what it called the “hiring remedy” the city has been stalling.

Plaintiffs’ attorney Joshua Karsh said the decision means Chicago must hire 111 African-American firefighters and adjust their pensions as if they had been on the job since 1995. Six-thousand others will share “tens of millions of dollars” in damages, Karsh said.

“We won last June 9 to 0, which is unusual in a civil rights case,” Karsh said. “We then had the city raise a dispute on what the Supreme Court’s opinion means. The [court] agreed with us that hiring must now take place.

“The city gave a test back in 1995 that did not measure the ability to be a firefighter. It made it more than six times more likely that white applicants would be hired rather than African Americans with no job-related justification. Nothing about getting a high score on that test predicted anything about whether you’d be a superior firefighter.”

When results from the 1995 entrance exam were disappointing for minorities, the city established a cutoff score of 89 and hired randomly from the top 1,800 “well-qualified” candidates.

In 2005, a federal judge ruled that the city’s decision had the effect of perpetuating the predominantly white status quo, since 78 percent of those ‘‘well-qualified’’ candidates were white.

Although the city has no choice but to start hiring black firefighters, outgoing Corporation Counsel Mara Georges called Friday’s ruling a “partial win” for the city because it will reduce the amount of damages the city must pay to roughly $30 million.

“Our position was affirmed, in part, reducing one group of class members,” Georges said. “It’s 21 fewer people, which does reduce the damages.

“We’re pleased that it was a partial victory, and we’re analyzing the rest of the decision to make a determination as to how we should proceed.”

One of those expected to be vying for the coveted 111 jobs is Handy Johnson, a 49-year-old personal trainer whose dream of becoming a Chicago firefighter was put off for so long that he’s now 11 years above the city’s age limit for new firefighter hires of 38 years old. That age limit won’t apply to the 111 new hires because the discrimination occurred before the cutoff was established.

That means Johnson has a chance, provided he’s lucky enough to be among those chosen randomly and physically fit enough to perform the strenuous job.

Johnson could not immediately be reached for comment Friday. But he still wants to be a firefighter, he said in an interview after last year’s Supreme Court ruling.

“I’m still in excellent shape,” Johnson said. “If they pick me, I should be given that chance. I do personal training. I’m a skill development coach for basketball and body conditioning. It‘s a physically demanding job. I know I can do the job.

“I took that test wanting to have a job where I could give back to my community and establish a family tradition for my four sons. It was the job of a lifetime, but I was never given that chance. It was a huge slap in the face. Now, I feel a hundred pounds lighter. It feels like when you know you have all the odds stacked against you, but, in the end, God makes sure the righteous prevail.”

Crawford Smith, 35, isn’t interested in cashing out, either. He still wants a job with the Chicago Fire Department.

“My grandfather was a fireman. My father was a fireman. I’ve got an uncle and a cousin who are still firemen. The Fire Department raised me. It’s a dream I’ve always had,” Smith said.

“I should have been a fireman. I should have been called. It feels good to finally have justice reached. I’m still interested if they’re interested in me. I’m very much in shape. I work out three times a week.”

Friday’s ruling exacerbates a city budget crisis that Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel, who will be sworn in on Monday, will inherit from Mayor Daley.

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