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Another Firefighter Discrimination Case: North Hudson Not New Haven

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By Dyanna Quizon, Esq. on December 15, 2011 3:02 PM

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Monday that the residents-only hiring policy of New Jersey's North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue discriminated against African-American candidates.

The Third Circuit's decision upheld the U.S. District Court of New Jersey's finding that the residency requirement had a disparate impact on African-American applicants. The lawsuit was brought on behalf of three firefighter candidates by the NAACP in 2007.

Both North Hudson and six Latino firefighter applicants appealed the lower court's decision, stating that the residency requirement was essential for several reasons, such as locale familiarity, swift response times and fostering a bilingual firefighter force.

Employment attorneys know, however, that business practices that have a disproportionately adverse effect on minorities are unlawful unless the practice constitutes a business necessity. The Third Circuit sided with the lower court judge in finding the requirement did not constitute a business necessity and “less discriminatory alternative means of achieving these goals” were available.

In addition, the Third Circuit could not reconcile the ample evidence of a statistical disparity between the total number of African-Americans in protective service positions in the tri-county area and statewide versus the almost complete lack of African-Americans in North Hudson.

A 2008 Equal Employment Opportunity Commission study revealed that, out of 302 North Hudson firefighters, approximately 79 percent were white, 19 percent were Latino, and only 0.6 percent (two firefighters) were African-American. African-Americans reportedly make up 3.4% of the covered population, according to 2000 Census figures.

“[A] minority workforce representation that low suggests discrimination,” the Third Circuit wrote.

The decision also distinguished the facts of the case from the facts that occurred in Ricci v. DeStefano. In that case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that an employer can only use fear of disparate impact litigation as a defense to its potentially discriminatory actions if there is a “strong basis in evidence” for that fear. North Hudson tried to establish a defense in the converse situation - its disparate-impact discrimination was done in fear of disparate-treatment liability by the Latino firefighters.

However, the Third Circuit held that the two cases were different because North Hudson itself has not taken any action to eliminate the residency requirement. It is the court that is responsible for eliminating the requirement.

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