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New York firefighters walk in the rubble of a building collapse last week in Harlem. The city and minority firefighter candidates have settled a discrimination lawsuit for $98 million. (Getty Images / March 11, 2014)

Black and Latino applicants to the New York City fire department who alleged that they lost out on jobs because of racially discriminatory written exams settled a long-running lawsuit for $98 million in back pay, the U.S. Justice Department said Tuesday.

The consent decree, which still requires court approval, calls for a court-appointed monitor to oversee the fire department’s recruiting and hiring process. The department will face specific recruiting goals and must create the positions of diversity advocate in the uniformed force and chief diversity and inclusion officer in the executive ranks.  

“This resolution will help ensure that those who seek to serve as firefighters in New York City have an equal opportunity to do so, regardless of their race,” Associate Atty. Gen. Tony West said in a statement.

The agreement stems from a 2007 lawsuit filed by the U.S. government and later joined by the Vulcan Society, a black firefighters group. They argued that the 85-question, pass-fail written exams used since 1999 led to a disproportionate number of black and Latino applicants being excluded from employment eligibility.

The lawsuit noted that only about 3% of the city’s 9,000 firefighters in 2007 were black and 7% were Latino, while New York’s population stood closer to 25% black and 27% Latino.

With the lawsuit behind them, Vulcan Society President John Coombs said he expected New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's administration "to ensure that fair and equal hiring practices become the standard in the FDNY from this day forward.”

De Blasio said in a statement Tuesday that his office was "fully committed to promoting diversity and equal access in every sector" across the city.

In 2009, a federal judge ruled that the fire department failed to show how the pair of tests proved an applicant's qualifications to be a firefighter. Between 1999 and 2007, “hundreds of qualified people of color” were unfairly excluded because they were far more likely to fail the tests than their white counterparts, U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis wrote. He later described the fire department as a "stubborn bastion of white male privilege."

An appellate court rejected part of the ruling that had found the discrimination to be intentional. That segment of the case was scheduled to be retried later this month before a new federal judge. At trial, the plaintiffs could have secured about $129 million. But instead the sides reached the settlement announced Tuesday. 

Attorneys said details were still being worked and it was not yet clear how many victims would be eligible for a portion of the $98-million settlement, which includes $6 million for lost medical benefits. Seven men are named as victims in the lawsuit. Some of the victims may also receive compensatory damages from the city.

Richard Levy, the lead attorney on the case, said the agreement would bring “historic changes to the department for years to come" and he credited the Vulcan Society's persistence for bringing them to fruition.

The city also agreed to be more transparent about medical requirements for firefighter candidates and create more opportunities for minorities to get firefighter training at city colleges. Candidates who are city residents would be given first priority for placement at stations near their home, the city said.

As part of a 2011 court ruling, the written exam was overhauled with approval of U.S. authorities and the Vulcan Society. And nearly 300 previously denied applicants were eligible to be fast-tracked into the fire department once they passed physical tests and other steps in the hiring process.

Two batches of people from that group have already been hired, the Department of Justice said. The Center for Constitutional Rights, which helped with the lawsuit, described the first class as the most racially diverse group of recruits in the department's history. About 62% of the 240 recruits identified as a minority.

A third set of so-called priority hires is expected to join the ranks in July.

A similar lawsuit forced the New York Fire Department to overhaul its testing and hiring practices in the 1970s, but budget cuts led to a pullback of those changes. During the next three decades, the fire department became overwhelmingly white as the city’s minorities formed a majority.

Black firefighters said they hoped this time around the pivot toward increased diversity would be permanent. The fire department said it doubled the number of minority firefighters from 2002 to 2013, ending up 9% Latino and 6% black.

“We're very pleased to come to an agreement with the city over an issue that should have been settled years ago," Paul Washington, past president of the Vulcan Society, said in a statement. "Hopefully, after almost 150 years of blacks being excluded from the best uniformed job in the city, we are witnessing a turning point. All New Yorkers should take notice that without struggle there is no progress.”     

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