Chicago’s Black firefighters continue fight in civil rights case

When former Chicago firefighter Michael Taqee retired from his public service role, he wanted to be able to tell his grandchildren he worked his way up the leadership ranks of the Fire Department.

But an admission practice that discriminated against Black firefighter applicants in the 1990s hurt Taqee in the promotion tests he took two decades later. The exam had a seniority component that accounted for 30% of the score.

Taqee officially joined the Chicago Fire Department in March 2012 at 51. At that point, he only had 12 years to earn a promotion before the city’s retirement age would make him call it quits. Since his time with the department dated back to 2012, instead of 1995 when he first took the test, he knew he would never reach the top of the promotional list before his 63rd birthday.

As a result, Taqee retired at 58 without the promotion he had dreamed about.

“It was a race to the finish line, so I knew that I would never be afforded the opportunity to get promoted, so I decided to leave early,” he said. “I wanted to chase dreams before I got too old to chase them.”

Taqee is one of 117 Chicago firefighters in the “Lewis Class,” a group of Black firefighters named after the Lewis v. City of Chicago lawsuit in which a district judge found the city violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964 with its admission practices in a 2005 ruling.

Now decades later, the firefighters are taking legal action again and seeking financial relief for missed opportunities to move up the firefighter ranks and for personal harm. They also seek reformed promotional practices for Black members of the Fire Department.

“It’s about the prestige and honor that you made progress in your career,” Taqee said of promotions within the Fire Department, speaking at a Monday news conference detailing the legal fight.

Taqee stood with two of his fellow fire academy classmates on Martin Luther King Jr. Day to call out the city for not protecting their civil rights.

“From my perspective on King, he fought for civil rights. This was a civil rights case, and even with what we thought was a great outcome, you still have hills and valleys,” said Rodney Shelton, a CFD engineer. “People fought for us, and now we’re going to continue that fight.”

In August, the first Black firefighter in the Lewis Class was promoted to lieutenant, said attorney Chiquita Hall-Jackson, a workplace discrimination lawyer who is representing the firefighters in the motion to enforce that was filed in November.

The lawsuit alleges a 20% average promotional rate for Black firefighters in the Lewis Class since 1999. That number compares with an average promotional rate of nearly 81% for Black firefighters in other academy classes between 1996 and 2002, according to data compiled by Hall-Jackson’s office.

“That’s what we’re here for, and that’s why now the harm has been shown, because exams have been taken and these individuals have been harmed because they don’t get the actual seniority points that they were required to get and are entitled to,” Hall-Jackson said.

The motion is largely based on the use of seniority in the promotion tests, which firefighters must take to move up to higher salaries and be considered for the positions of lieutenant, captain and battalion chief, among others. Seniority accounted for 30% of their test score, and for Black firefighters who were excluded from being hired in the 1990s, it was hard to achieve a high enough score for promotion.

The basis of the case dates back to 1995, when roughly 26,000 applicants took a written exam to become entry-level firefighters. Faced with the large number of applicants for only several hundred jobs, the city decided it would consider only those who scored 89 or above. This cutoff score excluded a high percentage of the minority applicants.

In 2005, U.S. District Judge Joan Gottschall ruled that the initial hiring test had an illegal “disparate impact” because the city had not justified using the cutoff score. After the ruling, the city conceded the entry-level tests discriminated against Black applicants but defended the hiring tests due to the large number of applicants.

The city did not appeal the “disparate impact” finding but said the firefighters had waited too long to file their lawsuit. The Supreme Court disagreed in a 2010 ruling.

The city continued to use the same qualifying score from 1996 to 2002 to hire 11 disproportionately white firefighter classes, according to the Legal Defense Fund, a legal group that represented the firefighters in a 1997 lawsuit.

Shelton said his promotional exam score when he tested in 2016 would have been 14 points higher had he been considered a member of the department when he took the admission test. A higher seniority score would have placed him in the top 50 on a list to qualify for a promotion when a spot become available. Instead, he was hundreds of names down the list.

“This right here is a continuation of a case that started in 1998,” Shelton said. “We saw it firsthand after we took our first promotion exam.”

On Monday, fire engineer and plaintiff Darrell Payne reiterated that it was “a day to celebrate.” But he felt obligated to speak out for future Black members of the Fire Department, like others who spoke out before him.

“There was people fighting for me before I knew anything about the opportunities that were going to drop in my lap,” Payne said.

The city has until Jan. 31 to address the November filing, Hall-Jackson said.

A spokesperson for the Chicago Fire Department could not be reached Monday. A spokesperson for Mayor Brandon Johnson did not respond to a request for comment.

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