Scholarship Fund Settles Conn. Firefighter's Suit BY WILLIAM KAEMPFFER - New Haven Register, Conn. Posted: Wed, 08/10/2011 - 01:42pm Updated: Wed, 08/10/2011 - 01:42pm ..NEW HAVEN, Conn. -- Preempting a potentially racially charged trial, the New Haven firefighters union and a black lieutenant who claimed the union discriminated against minorities have settled a four-year-old lawsuit by creating a $15,000 scholarship fund to benefit city youths entering college. "This is an opportunity to give to the community in an out-of-the-box way, something that was creative and something that will benefit our youth," said plaintiff Lt. Gary Tinney. "I just think it's a humbling win for both parties." Said Lt. James Kottage, president of Firefighters Local 825: "The outcome is very positive. It's an agreement that's good for high school seniors who are planning to go to college." The settlement averts a trial that by all accounts could have rubbed raw old racial wounds in the Fire Department. The union's insurance company will pay the $15,000. No attorney fees were part of the settlement. Kottage said the union was confident it would have prevailed in court, but thought it was in everyone's interest to move forward. "As the union president, it's not a benefit to the membership to have a nasty fight like this." The funds will be dispersed over the next three years to city youths attending college with an eye toward a career in public safety. Representatives from the union and the New Haven Firebirds, the fraternal organization for black firefighters that Tinney heads, both will serve on the selection committee. "At least from Gary's standpoint, we saw it as an opportunity to bridge some of the obvious and longstanding gaps in the ranks within the Fire Department," said attorney Martyn Philpot. "Instead of putting the department through another trial, we thought this was a chance to do something for the community." He credited Superior Court Judge Jonathan E. Silbert with helping broker the compromise. Philpot said he agreed to forgo legal fees as an "olive branch across the aisle" after "it became apparent that, if I were going to seek legal fees, that it would be an impediment to this worthwhile endeavor." Even with a middle ground reached, the two sides continue to strongly disagree on the underlying merits of Tinney's claims. Tinney stands by his belief the union has discriminated against minorities and failed to represent them as vigorously as their white counterparts. He said he hoped this settlement will help open a dialogue between the two sides. The union has consistently and strongly denied any bias. Before the case was settled, union lawyers asserted that a U.S. Supreme Court decision in favor of a group of mainly white New Haven firefighters in a discrimination case effectively "eviscerates" Tinney's claims. A central component of Tinney's suit revolved around a 2004 lawsuit filed by the union after the city tossed two promotional exams when minorities didn't score as well as whites. Tinney and some other minority firefighters opposed the lawsuit and supported the city's decision. Tinney called it discriminatory that his union dues were being used to finance a lawsuit he opposed. The union case ultimately was dismissed because of a lack of legal standing by the union. Twenty firefighters, 19 of them white and one Hispanic, went on to file their own lawsuit, and, after setbacks, prevailed before the U.S. Supreme Court, won damages and were retroactively promoted. In the lawsuit, Tinney cited other alleged acts of discrimination in the tumultuous times after the exams were tossed. He stated the union did nothing when someone posted an anonymous and disparaging firehouse poem about him; that it did nothing after an elderly citizen at a scene remarked that the "black bastards" were disrupting the department; that it failed to act when someone placed used medical gloves inside his work boots and when his car was damaged in a fenced-in lot behind a firehouse. The lawsuit also claimed the union failed to intervene when, in some instances, black firefighters were disciplined more severely than white for similar misconduct. "I believe everybody is treated fairly and equally and I totally disagree with that assessment," said Kottage. "That is so far from the truth, and, if we went to court, that would have come out." Tinney stood by his beliefs but said a settlement that benefits incoming college kids is a better resolution that a trial. "It doesn't always have to be someone walking out of a courtroom a millionaire. Sometimes, the message coming out is more important." McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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