Broadnax v. City of New Haven, (SC 16786).

Citation851 A.2d 1113,270 Conn. 133
Decision Date13 July 2004
Docket Number(SC 16786).
CourtSupreme Court of Connecticut
PartiesSHERYL BROADNAX ET AL. v. CITY OF NEW HAVEN ET AL.

Borden, Katz, Palmer, Vertefeuille and Zarella, Js.

Martin S. Echter, deputy corporation counsel, for the appellants-appellees (defendants).

W. Martyn Philpot, Jr., for the appellees-appellants (plaintiffs).

Patricia A. Cofrancesco, for the appellee (intervening defendant).

Opinion

BORDEN, J.

The defendants appeal and the plaintiffs cross appeal from the judgment of the trial court.1 The plaintiffs, Sheryl Broadnax, Ronald Benson, John R. Brantley, Danny Dolphin, Clifton Pettaway and Christopher Texeira brought this action against the defendants, the city of New Haven (city), the city's department of fire services (fire department), the city's board of fire commissioners, and the city's civil service commission, seeking various relief as a result of the defendants' use of "underfilling"2 as a means of funding promotions within the fire department. The plaintiffs alleged that underfilling is a discriminatory practice that violates: (1) the city's civil service rules and regulations; (2) the city's affirmative action plan; (3) the city's charter; (4) their federal constitutional rights via 42 U.S.C. §§ 19813 and 1983;4 and (5) article first, §§ 15 and 10,6 of the constitution of Connecticut. The plaintiffs sought, among other things: (1) an order enjoining the defendants from engaging in the practice of underfilling; (2) an order voiding all promotions made through the use of underfilling; (3) punitive damages; (4) compensatory damages; and (5) attorney's fees. Thereafter, New Haven Firefighters Local 825 intervened in the action as a defendant.

Upon the defendants' motion, the trial court, Devlin, J., struck the plaintiffs' claims alleging violations of their federal and state constitutional rights. Thereafter, the trial court, Munro, J., permanently enjoined the defendants from engaging in the practice of underfilling, and appointed a special master to oversee promotions within the fire department. After the defendants appealed and the plaintiffs cross appealed to this court, and following the plaintiffs' motion for contempt, the trial court, Munro, J., expanded the duties of the special master to oversee the hiring of new hires within the fire department. The defendants amended their appeal to challenge this subsequent ruling as well.

On their appeal to this court, the defendants claim, among other things, that: (1) the plaintiffs lack standing to challenge the defendants' use of underfilling; (2) the trial court improperly concluded that underfilling violates the city's charter, municipal ordinances and the civil service rules and regulations; (3) the trial court abused its discretion when it appointed a special master to oversee promotions within the fire department; and (4) the trial court improperly expanded the duties of the special master to oversee the hiring of entry-level trainees. We conclude that: (1) four of the six plaintiffs lack standing to challenge the defendants' use of underfilling in the present case; (2) the trial court properly concluded that underfilling is not permissible in the present case; (3) the trial court did not abuse its discretion by appointing a special master to oversee promotions within the fire department; and (4) the trial court improperly expanded the duties of the special master because all of the plaintiffs lacked standing to challenge the hiring of entry-level trainees.

On their cross appeal, the plaintiffs claim that the trial court improperly: (1) granted the defendants' motion to strike their claims alleging violations of their federal and state constitutional rights; (2) failed to void retroactively all promotions made through the process of underfilling; and (3) failed to award attorney's fees to the plaintiffs. With regard to the plaintiffs' first claim, we conclude that the trial court improperly struck the plaintiffs' claim alleging a violation of their federal equal protection rights. We also conclude, however, that we have no basis on which to disturb the trial court's ruling striking the remainder of the plaintiffs' claims alleging violations of their federal and state constitutional rights. Finally, we reject the plaintiffs' claims regarding the trial court's failure to void promotions made through underfilling and its failure to award attorney's fees.

The following facts and procedural history, however convoluted, are relevant to our resolution of this appeal and cross appeal. The plaintiffs are all African-American firefighters. The city and its fire department have been involved in litigation dating back to 1975, when the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut, Zampano, J., ordered the fire department to increase its hiring of minority firefighters on a prescribed timeline with a targeted hiring goal. Thereafter, in 1989, the New Haven Firebird Society (Firebird Society), an organization of minority firefighters, brought an action challenging a practice in the fire department known as "stockpiling." See New Haven Firebird Society v. Board of Fire Commissioners, 32 Conn. App. 585, 587-88, 630 A.2d 131, cert. denied, 228 Conn. 902, 634 A.2d 295 (1993). Stockpiling is a practice in which individuals are promoted to positions that are not yet vacant, just prior to the expiration of a civil service promotion eligibility list. Id., 588. Persons promoted through stockpiling, however, would not receive the pay, or perform the duties, of the newly acquired position until a vacancy eventually occurred. Id. Stockpiling was held to violate the city's charter and civil service rules and regulations because the practice resulted in some promotions actually taking effect after the applicable civil service eligibility list had expired. Id., 592-93. As a result of the litigation by the Firebird Society, the practice of stockpiling was abandoned prospectively, and promotions that had taken effect after the expiration of the eligibility list were judicially invalidated retroactively. Id., 589. This reshuffling of positions, as well as the retirement of other higher ranking firefighters, caused several vacancies in the fire department's command structure, particularly among the ranks of lieutenant and captain. Further, in the years following the trial court's decision in the action brought by the Firebird Society, the fire department ceased to administer civil service examinations, which prevented it from filling those vacancies through promotions.

Promotions within the fire department are governed by the city's civil service rules and regulations, which require individuals to pass an examination before becoming eligible to be promoted to a particular position.7 After the examination results are calculated, the names of passing candidates,8 along with their corresponding examination scores, are placed on an eligibility list. Names on the list are arranged in "rank order," meaning that the individual with the highest examination score is listed first, followed by names arranged in descending examination score order.

When a vacancy opens for a particular position, individuals are promoted from the eligibility list in rank order, on the basis of their examination score.9 For example, if two positions for the rank of lieutenant are vacant, the two individuals who scored the highest on the most recent lieutenants examination, i.e., the two names atop the eligibility list, will be promoted to lieutenant. In this regard, promotions within the fire department are predictable; so long as there is a current eligibility list for a particular position, firefighters know who is next in line to be promoted.

Pursuant to the civil service rules and regulations, eligibility lists expire two years from the date on which they are certified, i.e., the date on which the examination results are officially released. Accordingly, if an eligibility list for a particular position has expired, and the fire department has yet to administer another examination for that position, then the fire department will be unable to promote to that position; until, of course, an examination is administered and a new eligibility list is certified.

In addition, promotions in the fire department are funded through the city's annual budget. The city's board of aldermen creates the budget, which when passed and signed by the city's mayor, has the force of a city ordinance. When the board of aldermen produces the budget, it does so on a line-by-line basis. Thus, when the budget was enacted for fiscal year 1996-1997, it did not authorize a "bottom line" for the fire department's funding; rather, the budget specified the number of firefighter personnel authorized to receive pay at each rank and the funds allotted for those positions.

As previously alluded to, while the fire department was awaiting the finality of the Firebird Society litigation, the fire department refrained from promoting individuals to certain positions, and failed to administer civil service examinations. As a result, the most recent eligibility lists for lieutenant and captain had expired in March, 1988, and December, 1989, respectively. Thus, by the mid-1990s, although the fire department needed to promote firefighters to certain supervisory positions, such as lieutenant and captain, it could not do so until new promotional examinations were administered.

Martin J. O'Connor was the chief of the fire department from January, 1996, to January, 1998. In order to fill the fire department's need for additional lieutenants, captains and battalion chiefs, O'Connor requested that civil service examinations be administered for those positions. In September, 1995, a lieutenants examination was administered, and the eligibility list pertaining to that examination was certified in January, 1996, expiring in January, 1998. A captains...

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