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New York City settles racial discrimination suit against fire department

By Daniel Wiessner

NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York City has settled a long-running lawsuit claiming that its fire department intentionally discriminated against minority applicants, Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Tuesday.

Under the agreement, which must be approved by a federal judge, the city will pay about $98 million in back pay and benefits to black and Hispanic people who took civil service exams to become firefighters in 1999 and 2002, de Blasio's office said in a statement. The city will also implement reforms to the Fire Department of New York's recruiting policies to increase the number of minority firefighters.

The 2007 lawsuit, filed by the U.S. Department of Justice and joined by the Vulcan Society, a fraternal organization of black firefighters, claimed the FDNY's hiring exams and practices had shut out minorities from firefighter jobs. A federal judge in 2011 agreed, but that decision was overturned last year by an appeals court.

Under the settlement, back pay and benefits will go to some black and Hispanic people who did not get fire department jobs after taking the exam and others who were hired, but whose employment was delayed due to alleged discrimination.

De Blasio said Tuesday that any New Yorker "who seeks to take on this heroic role" should have a fair chance to do so.

"This administration is fully committed to promoting diversity and equal access in every sector across our five boroughs, and this settlement will move New York City one step closer to this goal," de Blasio said.

The Justice Department said settlement would protect future minority applicants to the fire department.

"The agreement we are announcing today ... not only will compensate victims of discriminatory hiring practices, it will also put in place an entry-level hiring process that should more accurately identify firefighter candidates who are best qualified to do the job," Associate Attorney General Tony West said in a statement.

The settlement comes after a federal appeals court last year ordered a monitor to oversee the FDNY's recruiting practices for five years in order to determine whether the department's hiring practices were discriminatory.

That ruling overturned a 2011 decision by U.S. District Court Judge Nicholas Garaufis in Brooklyn, who found "copious evidence" of intentional discrimination by the FDNY and ordered a monitor to keep tabs on the department for 10 years. Garaufis also ordered the city to make a top-to-bottom reassessment of how it handles racial issues in how it recruits, hires and employs black and Hispanic firefighters.

The settlement announced on Tuesday must be approved by Garaufis. It is unclear how many applicants will share in the $98 million payout.

De Blasio's office said that as part of the agreement, the city would create an executive staff position of chief diversity and inclusion officer at the FDNY, who will report directly to the fire commissioner. The FDNY also will work with the city's Department of Education and local colleges to recruit minority applicants.

(Reporting by Daniel Wiessner; Editing by Scott Malone and Andrew Hay)

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