In a classic case of so-called reverse discrimination, the court reversed a lower court decision and agreed with the claims of Joseph Quinn, Sean O’Brien, Robert Dillon and Joseph Sullivan, who argued that a quota system established nearly 30 years ago to redress low minority representation in the department was no longer constitutionally permissible because its goal of racial parity had already been met.
At issue was a consent decree enacted in 1974 that was designed to help blacks and Hispanics gain entry into the department. The decree required that one minority would be hired for every white hired. The practice was to end when the city achieved a complement of minority firefighters commensurate with the percentage of minorities in the community.
The Appeals Court found that in November 2000 blacks and Hispanics comprised slightly over 38 percent of Boston’s overall population. At the same time, blacks and Hispanics comprised approximately 40 percent of the firefighters within the department.
Despite average scores of 99 on the Civil Service exam, none of the four was hired in the fall of 2000 when 50 firefighters positions were filled. At least 23 minority applicants with lower scores were hired, prompting the suit against Mayor Thomas Menino and other city officials.
The Appeals Court ruled that city officials violated the men’s constitutional rights “by depriving them of an equal opportunity to compete for positions in the BFD.”
The court concluded that “a public employer who consents to the use of race as a factor in order to palliate the lingering effects of past discrimination must maintain continuous oversight in order to ensure that the decree works the least possible harm to other innocent persons competing for employment. . . . The City applied a consent-decree, previously held to be constitutional, for too long.”
The court ordered the case remanded to the federal district court for corrective action.
One of the four men, Joseph Quinn, was hired earlier this year after scoring 100 on the test. The other three, along with another man who recently joined the suit, now expect to be working in the fire department in the near future. They may also seek seniority and back pay.
O’Brien, a 35-year-old emergency medical technician, has been trying to follow in his late father’s footsteps for many years. He was 8 years old when his father, a captain and 30-year veteran of the fire department, passed away.
“It was great to finally get some good news,” he said this week. “I still have my father’s helmet and his badge, and I’ll ask by mother to pin the badge on me when we have the graduation ceremonies.”