YOU CAN ADD more than $840,000 to the cost borne by Minneapolis taxpayers for discriminatory hiring practices at the Minneapolis Fire Department. That's the upshot of a recent ruling by Hennepin County District Judge Harry Crump, who ordered that the City of Minneapolis pay Hispanic firefighter Brian Kohn $705,000 for using a written test that discriminated against minorities when he applied for promotion to captain in 1991. Crump also ordered the city to pay a $100,000 civil penalty to the state of Minnesota, and tacked on the cost of Kohn's attorney's fees, which were more than $41,000 as of Feb. 10.
Crump's April 11 ruling came less than a month after MFD Chief Tom Dickinson sailed through his job performance review by the Minneapolis City Council, despite protests by a number of minority groups, including the local NAACP. The discriminatory written test was issued under Dickinson's watch, and has already cost the city more than $500,000 to settle a suit brought in 1992 by six African American firefighters. This week, the city is again in court defending the MFD against charges that it used a biased psychological test last fall to fire seven minority firefighters in its cadet training program. Dickinson has also claimed that gang members were infiltrating the MFD, but subsequently apologized.
In agreeing to Kohn's request for triple the normal compensatory damages for back pay, emotional harm, and damage to reputation, Crump imposed the maximum financial penalty permissible under the law. "Obviously the judge is trying to send a message to the city that its fire department has an ongoing problem with discrimination," says Kohn's attorney, Sonja Peterson. Crump himself refused to comment on the case, but it's likely that the damages reflect his pique with the city for refusing to acknowledge past court rulings and the testimony of its own experts with respect to its discrimination against Kohn.
During the trial, the city contended that the one-year statute of limitations on civil rights violations had expired before Kohn brought his suit. But Peterson argued that at the time, Kohn had no way of knowing the test was discriminatory. The city and the black firefighters who had filed suit over the test had agreed to a gag order during their negotiations. Ironically, Kohn claims he first heard about bias in the test when the predominantly white firefighters union Local 82 recruited him to help block the black firefighters' settlement on the basis of reverse discrimination.
The city also contended that the test had only been shown to be biased against African Americans and not Hispanics. But during the trial, Ron Edwards of the Firefighters Steering Committee and the city's own director of affirmative action, Larry Blackwell, both testified that Hispanics had been adversely affected. Furthermore, when the MFD reconfigured its promotion process for fire captains in a manner that lessened the impact of the test, Kohn emerged as the leading candidate, and subsequently was promoted in 1995.
But perhaps the most incredible aspect of the city's defense was its refusal to acknowledge the relevance of the fact that the MFD has been under a federal court order for 25 years to integrate the department. City attorneys ignored the wording of the court order, which specifically refers to Hispanics as well as African Americans and Native Americans as targets of discrimination. Even now, after Crump's pointed and expensive ruling, Assistant City Attorney Larry Warren says the court order is "a red herring," and "irrelevant," claiming that the Kohn case "wasn't about that; it was about whether this written test was discriminatory to Hispanics under the terms of the civil rights statute. You can't go back and say, well there was a big ruckus 25 years ago. I don't think that has anything to do with what was pled." Warren adds that he was "surprised" that Crump included the court order in his findings on the case, and says, "If that weighs heavily on his mind, I think it is difficult to get an unbiased decision on this case."
To that end, Warren and the city will ask Crump to reconsider his decision. "Frankly, I doubt that he will change his mind," Warren says. If Crump holds firm, the city plans to appeal. Meanwhile, Peterson will continue to represent Kohn and, unless the decision is overturned, recoup her fee from city taxpayers, adding to the more than $1.3 million the 6-year-old biased test has cost--making it an expensive monument to business as usual at the MFD.
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