- Associated Press - Thursday, July 28, 2011

NEW HAVEN, Conn. (AP) A group of 20 firefighters who won a discrimination case before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2009 has been awarded about $2 million in damages from the city of New Haven, ending a seven-year-old legal battle that fueled national debate over racial preferences, officials said Thursday.

The Supreme Court ruled that officials violated white firefighters’ civil rights when they threw out 2003 promotion tests results because too few minorities did well. The firefighters returned to U.S. District Court in Connecticut seeking back pay, damages and legal fees.

Court papers indicate the firefighters - 19 whites and one Hispanic - accepted offers Wednesday from the city for back pay, additional pension benefits and interest. A trial to decide the damages had been set to begin Aug. 26.

According to the Hartford Courant, the firefighters, who vary in their positions and seniority, will receive sums from the city running from about $27,000 to $135,000. The city also will pay the firefighters’ attorney fees of about $3 million.

“I think it’s a fair offer,” Richard Roberts, an attorney who represented the city told the Associated Press on Thursday. “We’re glad we can move ahead and put this behind us.”

City officials said the settlement, which includes three years of pension credit, avoids the cost and uncertainty of further litigation. They said the settlement will be paid for from an account set aside for the case and insurance proceeds.

“In addition to recognizing that this resolution allows the city to move forward, I want to acknowledge the work of the New Haven firefighters who never allowed this debate to affect their performance on the fire grounds, or, with one another,” Mayor John DeStefano said. “Their service to the people of New Haven and to their units has been and remains exemplary.”

Mr. Roberts said the settlement does not require a judge’s approval. But he and Karen Torre, attorney for the firefighters, disagreed on the implications of the agreement and the value of the pension credits.

Ms. Torre said the agreement was significant because city officials, in essence, admitted to the firefighters’ claims, including that the city conspired to violate the firefighters’ civil rights. She also said the pension credit would be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars per firefighter.

But Mr. Roberts disputed her assertion, saying the city did not admit to conspiring to violate civil rights, but only agreed to the Supreme Court ruling that New Haven discriminated against its white firefighters by ignoring the test results.

He also disputed Ms. Torre’s estimate of the value of the pension credits.

New Haven officials said they were worried at the time about a lawsuit from black firefighters after only two of 50 minority candidates would have been eligible for promotion based on the test results. After the Supreme Court ruling, the city certified the exam results and promoted everyone who would have been promoted if the exams had been certified in the first place.

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