Judge dismisses fire captains' suit against union

Case challenged promotions policy

By Paul Pinkham
Times-Union staff writer

Jacksonville, Fla - After two days of testimony in a discrimination lawsuit filed by three black fire captains against the Jacksonville firefighters' union, a judge sent the jury home yesterday and threw the case out.

U.S. District Judge Henry Adams found there was no discrimination when the Jacksonville Association of Firefighters Local 122 challenged the settlement of the trio's lawsuit against the city, which resulted in their promotions to captain.

"I don't think the evidence of this case establishes a fiduciary duty on the part of the union to not intervene in this case," Adams said in issuing directed verdicts in favor of the union. The captains' lawyer said they hadn't decided whether to appeal.

Phillip and Glenda Hopkins, who are married, and Willie Jones sued the city and union to challenge their low standing on a 1994 promotional exam. The city settled the case last year by creating three captains' positions and promoting Jones and the Hopkinses.

The union opposed the settlement and is challenging it in state court, claiming it violates the union's collective bargaining agreement with the city and is unfair to firefighters who sought promotions through traditional means.

"This one single issue has caused the most dissent in the history of the fire department," union President Randy White testified during this week's trial.

During the trial, Glenda Hopkins wept on the witness stand as she described feeling "betrayed" by the union when it challenged her promotion.

"It's always been an unwritten rule that Local 122 would not pit members against members," she said.

But Larry Osborne, the local's business agent, testified later that the union had to challenge the settlement to defend its contract, which spells out promotional procedures. Typically, firefighters are advanced through a promotional exam with added weight given to rank and experience.

"The promotional system is a sacred procedure," White said after court yesterday. "Whoever's at the top of the list is the most qualified person, and that's how they should be promoted."

Union attorney Kenneth Vickers noted that the top scorer on the current captain's test is an African-American and 10 of the top 40 scorers are black. All are likely to be promoted because of the high rate of retirements expected between now and when the test expires in spring 2004.

Jones and the Hopkinses wouldn't comment on Adams' ruling; their attorney, Reginald Luster, said they were disappointed.

"We really felt that the issue should have been submitted to the jury," Luster said.

Staff writer Paul Pinkham can be reached at (904) 359-4107 or ppinkhamjacksonville.com.

Story from http://www.jacksonville.com/