Reprinted with permission
A federal jury Friday awarded four white fire captains $135,000 each after determining that the Mobile Fire-Rescue Department discriminated against them by passing them over for promotion two years ago.
The reverse-discrimination verdict is the second in as many years against the department and deals a serious blow to Chief Steve Dean's efforts to improve diversity in the upper management ranks.
The exuberant plaintiffs and their lawyers rejoiced at the verdict and suggested that Dean ought to stick to the top of the list developed by the Mobile County Personnel Board when it comes to hirings and promotions.
"I am appreciative of the jury and think they -- where others couldn't -- did the right thing," said Ed Smith, the lead attorney for the white fire captains. "I think it's a sad day, however. I thoroughly felt the new mayor had an opportunity to hold out an olive branch to not just the white firefighters but all firefighters."
Attorney Paul Carbo, who represented the city, said he especially disagreed with the jury's decision to award money to all of the plaintiffs. He said he plans to take up the issue in post-trial motions.
"It's our basic position that there was only one promotion at issue, and that they all couldn't have gotten the promotion," he said.
Melvin Stringfellow, Stanley Vinson, Kenneth Tillman and Onrie "Diddy" Brown sued the city last year after they failed to win promotion to district chief, a position responsible for overseeing fire and rescue operations in a section of the city. The promotion instead went to Johnny Morris, a black man with less education, less experience and lower scores on the promotion exams.
The eight-member panel, which included one black juror, ruled unanimously that Dean discriminated against the men. They awarded $10,000 to each plaintiff in lost wages and benefits and $125,000 to each for emotional pain and anguish.
Chief U.S. District Judge Ginny Granade at a later date could add more money to compensate the men for wages they would have earned in the future had they been promoted.
The case bore a striking resemblance to a lawsuit brought last year by Alan Silvester, a white captain who lost out to a black applicant for promotion to fire administrator. After a jury found in Silvester's favor, the city appealed and two sides settled the dispute for $300,000.
As in the Silvester case, the plaintiffs argued that Dean promoted a less-qualified black man. According to testimony at the trial, all four plaintiffs had college degrees, whereas Morris had none. Morris had been a captain for less than three years, with about 10 years with the department. The plaintiffs had significantly more time on the force and in captain positions.
In addition, Morris ranked ninth out of 12 on the Personnel Board's list of eligible candidates, behind all of the plaintiffs.
Smith argued throughout the four-day trial that Dean buckled under pressure from Mobile's black city councilmen. Testimony included a letter written to Dean by former Councilman Thomas Sullivan in December 2003 urging him to consider black firefighters for the district chief slot.
"Chief Dean may not be a bad man, but I think he's a weak man. ... I think he succumbed to political pressure," Smith said during his closing argument.
The defense argued that Dean made his decision based on deficiencies in the other candidates, not their race.
"It's easy to blame someone else or something else rather than look in the mirror and say, 'What is it that I did wrong?'" Carbo told jurors during his own closing statement.
The plaintiffs said afterward that they feel vindicated.
"I'm ecstatic," said Brown, who was forced to retire as a result of injuries he suffered on the job. "I don't know how much the city can afford, how they can keep paying these high-dollar lawsuits."
Stringfellow said he hopes Dean will change the way he approaches promotional decisions.
"And people won't have to keep coming down to this courthouse," he said.