NEW YORK — A federal judge said Thursday the amount of back wages owed minorities affected by discrimination in the city’s firefighter entrance exams could be more than $128 million.
In a decision, U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis said hearings will be held to determine how much individual claimants will receive, which could lower the total amount the city will have to pay.
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Garaufis ruled previously that the Fire Department of New York discriminated against minorities in its entrance exam, saying black and Hispanic applicants had disproportionately failed the written examinations and those who passed were placed disproportionately lower down the hiring lists than whites.
Of the 11,200 uniformed firefighters in the city, 9 percent are black or Hispanic. More than half the residents in the city of 8 million identify with a racial minority group.
City Corporation Counsel Michael Cardozo called the opinion “erroneous” and said: “When all the proceedings have been completed, the damages, if any, that the city will have to pay will be far less than $128 million.”
The judge appointed an independent monitor in October to keep an eye on the department’s effort to improve diversity in recruiting officers. In January, the city filed a brief asking an appeals court to remove the judge, saying he had abandoned his neutral role.
In his ruling Thursday, Garaufis appointed four special monitors to oversee the back pay hearings, and said the proceedings could not be delayed by the city’s appeal. He criticized the city, saying it had opportunities to “avoid financial liability of this magnitude.”
“It has been in the City’s power to prevent or remedy the need for damages proceedings for a decade, and it has not done so,” he wrote. “The partial summary judgment on the aggregate amount of gross back pay, and the need for individual proceedings to evaluate mitigation, are consequences of the city’s decision to ignore clear violations of federal law.”
Richard Levy, lead counsel for the plaintiffs, said the amount the city had to pay out could actually grow because Thursday’s ruling dealt only with back pay. He said the city might have to eventually pay compensatory damages or interest on the wages.