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Fire Dept. racial bias lawsuit is dismissed Ruling upholds city in 14-year-old case

A federal judge with widespread oversight of the Buffalo Fire Department has dismissed a 14-year-old lawsuit alleging racial discrimination in the department.

The suit, filed by 17 current and former African-American firefighters, accused the city of using promotional and disciplinary policies that intentionally discriminated against black employees.

In ruling against the firefighters, U.S. District Judge John T. Curtin said they failed to make their case against the department.

"The court agreed there was no merit to any of the claims," said Adam W. Perry, the Buffalo attorney representing the city. "This litigation has now been concluded, and all to the city's favor."

The judge's decision, the latest in a series of orders in the high-profile case, ends, at least for now, the 1998 suit brought by the firefighters and the group representing them, Men of Color Helping Society.

A lawyer for the organization indicated that it may appeal Curtin's ruling.

"We think there's a lot of evidence in the record that the judge failed to consider," said Harvey P. Sanders, a lawyer for the group. "We're reviewing the opinion and considering whether to appeal."

The judge's decision ends the group's suit but does not end his oversight of the Fire Department. He maintains some oversight as a result of a separate suit by the U.S. Justice Department.

Curtin's latest ruling addresses the city's use of drug testing policies that the group and the firefighters contended were discriminatory.

The judge, in a 59-page decision, offered a series of reasons why he dismissed those allegations, most notably a lack of evidence proving the city violated the firefighters' constitutional rights.

Curtin ruled that the 17 firefighters -- he detailed their individual circumstances in his court papers -- were given due process when it came to drug testing. He also ruled that none of them could prove that the city violated their privacy rights or intentionally discriminated against them.

Perry said the city is prepared to continue the legal fight if the group and the firefighters elect to appeal. He also thinks Curtin's ruling will help make their case.

This latest ruling follows Curtin's previous orders in the case regarding the department's use of controversial promotional exams.

The group contends that the exams for fire lieutenant were illegal because they discriminated against African-Americans. It tried to show that only a handful of minorities passed the tests, while white firefighters fared much better.

In May of 2010, Curtin ruled that the exams were valid tests of the abilities and skills demanded of a lieutenant. He also found "insufficient" evidence that the city purposely engaged in discrimination.

This new ruling marks another legal victory for the city as it continues to address federal oversight of its Police and Fire departments. In September of last year, Curtin lifted a 22-year-old court order on police hiring, prompting city lawyers to speculate that it might be the first step in ending his oversight of the Police Department.

Curtin has overseen the police desegregation case since it began in 1973.

His original court order was based on his determination that the city's written entry exams put minorities at a serious disadvantage.

email: pfairbanks@buffnews.com