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White firefighters awarded $2.5 million in discrimination case

Twelve white firefighters who sued after not getting promotions they were in line to get have been awarded a total of more than $2.5 million from the city of Buffalo.

The men sued the city in 2007, claiming the fire department illegally allowed promotional lists with their names on them to expire so they could promote African-American firefighters instead.

The firefighters' awards were based on how far their promotions would have taken them - $49,000 to $500,000 - plus emotional damages, which ranged from $20,000 to $30,000, reported NBC affiliate WGRZ.com.

"The two fellows who are getting the most were selected for promotion to lieutenant in the fall of 2005 by the fire commissioner, and then again around the end of January 2006 by a new fire commissioner. Those two fellows have never made it to lieutenant," an attorney representing the plaintiffs, Andrew Fleming, told msnbc.com on Thursday. "They had been working 10 or 12 years by 2006. So the judge looked at what their prospective promotions would have been, and ruled that it was likely they would have made battalion commander."

Those two were each given $500,000 based on the judge's calculations, he said.

'They really felt betrayed'
The compensation ruling was awarded on Tuesday by state Supreme Court Justice John Michalek, who 15 months ago made the initial ruling that Buffalo had illegally failed to promote the firefighters because of racial discrimination.

In order to qualify for a promotion, a firefighter needs to take a promotional eligibility exam, which tests the skills they would need to serve as a lieutenant, captain, or other higher-ranking position in the department. The Buffalo case alleged that white firefighters had scored high enough on their exams, but were then denied promotions because the city wanted to give minorities, who hadn't scored as well, the chance to fill those positions.

"The word that kept coming up was betrayal," Fleming said. "They really felt betrayed by the city."

This isn't the first allegation of racial discrimination in the Buffalo Fire Department, or in fire departments around the country. According to a 2010 story on BuffaloNews.com, the department was sued in federal court over the fairness of the promotion exams before: A group of African-American Buffalo firefighters claimed that because only a handful of minorities had passed the tests, blacks did not have an equal shot at promotions as whites did in the department.

A judge dismissed the suit, though, ruling that there was insufficient evident to prove the city intentionally engaged in discrimination against black firefighters.

The awards this week came in a state court case.

Reverse discrimination was also addressed in a lawsuit at a New Haven, Conn. Fire Department that made its way to the Supreme Court in June 2009. Similar to the Buffalo case, the court ruled that white firefighters were unfairly denied promotion because of their race, ruling in favor of the 20 white plaintiffs.

13th firefighter got nothing
In this week's ruling, a 13th firefighter listed in the suit, Anthony Hynes, was not awarded any damages because there wasn't enough evidence to support his claim, according to the court.

"He was up for division chief, which is the highest rank you can get other than fire commissioner," Fleming told msnbc.com. "When he was passed over for it and another year had passed he realized he wasn't going to get it, he made the decision to retire."

The judge likely excluded Hynes because he assumed there wouldn't have been an opening for division chief even if he hadn't retired, Fleming said.

A spokesman for Buffalo told WGRZ.com that officials are reviewing the decision, and the city may appeal the ruling.

Three firefighters in the case have since been injured on the job since the lawsuit was filed, but all of the others are still working for the department, Fleming told msnbc.com.

"In some cases, they're working for people they should be in charge of. Seeing someone else wearing the captain's bars -- that's hard stuff," he said.

'I cried at this one'
The lawsuit describes emotional distress the men experienced over the past several years, citing sleeplessness, marital strain, and depression. The damages award was greeted with mixed emotions.

"The fellow who didn't get any money, they all feel as though that was not fair," Fleming told msnbc.com. "Many of them had said they were very, very pleased with the result, but for many of them, they just simply say, you know what? This is not ever going to go away for me. One of them, he was on TV last night saying, 'I should be a captain; I'm only a lieutenant.'"

"It's just bad stuff. It's just a sad case. I've never cried at a trial. I cried at this one," he added.

Lawyers for the city said they disagreed with the judge's ruling on how much the firefighters should be paid.

"The city, at all times, acted under its rights under federal law," Attorney Adam Perry told BuffaloNews.com. "The city has maintained its position that the liability determination made by Justice Michalek was erroneous and should be reversed on appeal."

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