A Federal Judge has ruled that African-Americans working in civilian positions in the Fire Department can raise pay disparities in their lawsuit against the department over workplace discrimination.

Last October, U.S. District Judge J. Paul Oetken denied the city’s motion to dismiss the case but narrowed the plaintiffs’ claims to allegations over race-based hiring and job-placement practices.  

Plaintiffs Persuaded Him

He found that while the lawyers for the employees had produced “sufficient facts to raise a plausible inference that the city’s hiring and job-placement practices” were “influenced by impermissible racial discrimination...their claims regarding the city’s compensation decisions” fell short.  


PAUL OETKEN: Expand suit's parameters.

In his April 8 order, the judge said the plaintiffs’ amended complaint had provided additional data to support their initial claims.  

“The court restored claims that were previously dismissed but did not weigh in on the merits of the claims,” Nick Paolucci, a spokesperson for city Corporation Counsel Zachary Carter, replied in a statement. “We’ll respond as we proceed in the litigation.”

 “Plaintiffs have now alleged that the mean or median pay of known African-American employees in four job titles—up from two in the original complaint—is lower than the mean or median pay of similarly titled employees who are known not to be African- American, and that those four job titles collectively include over half of the employees in the Covered Categories,” Judge Oetken wrote. 

More Meat on Bone

“Plaintiffs have now alleged that African-American employees within at least three of these four job titles have received smaller raises on average than their similarly tenured peers of other races, thus undercutting the possibility that the pay disparities in those job titles are attributable solely to employees’ relative seniority.” 

The judge also ruled the plaintiffs had now offered “an analysis of between 85% and 93% of the employees—i.e., those employees whose race is known—in each of the four job titles at issue.” 

The judge’s ruling took note of the example cited by the employees’ lawyers of Annette Richardson, who got “a starting salary 20% lower than the salary she had been earning in her prior job, even though '[w]hite employees accepting jobs with FDNY” were not required to take such large pay cuts. “And as Richardson was subsequently accumulating added job duties without seeing any salary increase, a white colleague was allegedly receiving substantial raises without taking on any new duties,” the judge wrote. “Similarly, Plaintiff Dino Riojas has received no discretionary pay raises in thirty-five years even though he allegedly has relevant job skills that the non–African American comparators who have received such raises do not.”

The Judge stated the city “never squarely argues that Plaintiffs have failed to plausibly allege that race-linked pay disparities occur” but instead argued only that the plaintiffs “failed to plausibly allege that these disparities arise as a result of intentional discrimination” or as the  “result of an identifiable FDNY policy or group of policies.” 

Too Few Managers

In their initial pleadings, the lawyers for the African-American employees used other city agencies as a benchmark to support their case of systemic discrimination. They asserted that the percentage of African-American administrators and managers, whose FDNY salaries averaged $117,831, “undershot African-American representation at city agencies overall by 33 percent.”

Stephanie Thomas, one of the plaintiffs, has been with the FDNY for 30 years. “I started in 1988 as a Level I Computer Specialist,” she recalled in a phone interview. “I am still a Level One after all of these years and do feel it was because of my race…and that there is an attitude that certain ethnic groups have the market cornered on technology. They don’t see black women as technologists, so when I walk in a room and say ‘I am Stephanie Thomas and I will be creating your database,’ they look at me as if I had three heads. I have to prove myself every single time…I have never had an FDNY project that didn’t succeed, but they will bring in a white woman and give her the job with no track record." 

Ms. Thomas said she felt a deep connection to the 2016 movie “Hidden Figures,” which chronicled the real-life story of three African-American female mathematicians whose talents were critical to the success of the launch of the U.S. space program and the founding of NASA. “I was an avid fan of the space program,” she said. “I don’t think I missed a launch, and that was one of the reasons I got into technology.”

 Improves Their Case

The lead counsel for the employees welcomed Judge Oetken’s ruling, which is likely to affect between 300 and 400 employees. “We are going to be able now to get information regarding pay policies and practices and we expect we will be able to prove not only discrimination based on promotions and hiring decisions but also pay decisions,” attorney Mike Lieder said in a phone interview.  

Getting access to a city agency’s salary and promotions history has been the focus of a similar discrimination lawsuit being pursued by District Council 37’s FDNY/EMS unions, Local 2507 and Local 3627, alleging that a wide wage disparity exists between EMS first-responders and their firefighting colleagues. 

On April 2, the de Blasio administration and Communication Workers of America Local 1180 reached a settlement of a pay-discrimination lawsuit covering Administrative Managers that was brought in 2013 against the Bloomberg administration. 

The $15-million settlement, which still must be approved by a Federal judge, covers 1,600 active and retired Local 1180 members who were on the job from December of 2013 to 2017.

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