The City of Atlanta will have to pay three of its firefighters $320,000 for legal fees from a class action lawsuit claiming city officials did nothing to address allegations of cheating on a fire department promotion test, a judge ruled Wednesday.
Fulton County Superior Court Judge Kelly A. Lee also ruled that five Atlanta firefighters who scored higher than a 90 on the city's written test for lieutenant will be stripped of their provisional promotions and corresponding pay until an independent retest can be given.
The lawsuit, filed last year, alleged the city didn't fully investigate cheating allegations raised against an undisclosed number of firefighters who took the April 2010 exam.
Last month, a jury ruled in favor of three firefighters who claimed, on behalf of 160 other fire employees who took the test, that two assistant chiefs provided answers to several firefighters before the exam.
Deputy City Attorney Eric Richardson objected to the jury verdict and the judge's decision. He said the city intends to appeal the ruling.
"There's been no proof . . . no direct evidence of cheating," Richardson said.
The jury didn't indicate which individuals cheated, but Lee on Wednesday pointed at the top scorers when she made her decision to invalidate their promotions.
"If the people who scored the top scores --- who never scored them before --- didn't cheat, then who did?" she asked during the hearing.
In addition to stripping the titles, Lee ruled that about 110 employees who scored 60 or more on the exam will be eligible to retest and that the exam will be administered by an independent testing agency.
It remained unclear if an independent testing agency will become an ongoing requirement. All firefighters who retake and pass the test and are promoted will be paid retroactively to the date of the first test.
About 80 firefighters were promoted from the first exam.
Lee Parks, the attorney for the firefighters who brought the lawsuit, echoed demands of the Atlanta chapter of the International Association of Fire Fighters that the city conduct an investigation of who cheated and who enabled the cheating.
Parks suggested that criminal charges be sought.
"Right now, Atlanta Public School teachers are sitting in the district attorney's office because they did what these fire department members did," he said. "This is not an administrative issue. We're talking about criminal activity."
Richardson said the city wouldn't pursue an internal investigation until the lawsuit is closed.
Lee will finalize her judgment, including details for the company to conduct the retest and the cost, on Friday. Richardson said he will ask at that time that she change her decision to reverse the promotions.