STAMFORD – Four years ago, four Stamford firefighters pooled their money, hired an attorney, and filed a lawsuit saying city officials fudged exam scores to decide promotions.
Since then, the Stamford police union filed – and settled – a similar suit over the city’s handling of a promotional exam for sergeants.
And Connecticut troopers won a case charging that state officials altered exam rules to give themselves wide discretion in choosing 27 new sergeants.
But the firefighters’ self-funded suit still sits in court. A trial, once set for September 2020, now is scheduled for November.
“The case started in state court then went to federal court for a year, but a federal judge kicked it back to state court,” said Brian Whitbread, who with fellow firefighter Robert Pickering and lieutenants Kevin Dingle and Bruce Wagoner allege they were improperly denied promotions. “We tried mediation once. It didn’t go anywhere. The legal expenses are a huge burden on us and our families.”
But it’s a court battle worth waging, Whitbread said.
“There’s a civil service system in place to ensure hirings and promotions go by the rules,” Whitbread said. “People who live in the system have questioned whether the process is on the up-and-up.”
In 2006, for example, the Stamford Fire Commission had to throw out its list of candidates after top scorers on the exam asked why those with lower scores were offered jobs, including a commissioner’s son, the chief’s son, and the mayor’s nephew.
“Somebody has to check the city on this stuff,” Whitbread said.
The firefighters’ promotional test was created by a company the city hired to ensure questions were not biased against minority candidates. City officials have said they are trying to diversify the fire and police departments.
The testing company computed the scores out to two decimal points, so that candidates could score, say, 87.23, 87.59, and 87.94. With such scores, the last applicant would get the promotion.
But city officials rounded the scores; in this case they would consider all to be 87. That would allow officials to pick from all three candidates rather than just the one who scored 87.94.
That violates the law, said Elizabeth Maurer, the attorney representing Stamford firefighters.
“The law limits the discretion of the hiring authority because, if you did a good test and made a good list, you know who the most competent candidates are,” Maurer said. “That’s the concept of civil service – to avoid nepotism, patronage, favoritism.”
A request for comment left with the city’s law firm, Carlton Fields, was not returned.
In the Stamford police case, five officers said they were not promoted to sergeant even though they scored high on the exam. They alleged that the city ignored the precise exam scores to improperly expand the number of eligible candidates.
Police reached a settlement with the city, the union chief said.
Whitbread said the police union sued over positions, not people as the firefighters did.
“They wanted five more sergeant positions for those who were passed over, and the city gave them that,” Whitbread said.
Connecticut troopers won their case in court, where Judge Cesar Noble ruled that state agencies that changed the scoring rules on the sergeant exam gave themselves broad discretion to choose from among a large number of candidates, which runs counter to civil service rules designed to limit discretion. Noble said the interview portion of the exam had no standards and was left to the “uncontrolled opinion of the examiners.”
Noble ordered state agencies to invalidate the promotions awarded under the exam, stop using it and come up with a proper one.
Coveted civil service jobs and promotions have long been a source of controversy in Connecticut, often because of race.
The most notable case stems from 2004, when 20 mostly white New Haven firefighters who had passed a promotion exam filed a federal lawsuit after city officials tossed the results. Officials said they invalidated the exam because none of the black firefighters who took it scored high enough to be promoted, and officials feared they would be sued for racial discrimination.
The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in 2009 that New Haven officials had, in fact, discriminated against the mostly white firefighters when the officials discarded the exam results.