Litigation often begets more litigation. A recent decision of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reflects that even 35 years after it thought it settled a lawsuit regarding the hiring and promotion of officers in its fire department, the City of Memphis, Tennessee is still embroiled in litigation involving some of the same issues and their fallout.

Litigation involving alleged race and sex discrimination by the Memphis fire department has had a prominent history. Judgment decrees regarding race and employment practices were entered in 1974 (regarding promotions) and in 1980 (regarding hiring and promotions). The same fire department was the subject of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1984 decision in Firefighters Local Union No. 1784 v. Stotts, 467 U.S. 561 (1984),  when the department, due to budget reasons, began laying off firefighters hired under the 1980 consent decree. Sometime afterwards, the department was embroiled in still more litigation, this time by white and Hispanic firefighters, when it threw out the results of a promotional test that arguably had a disparate impact on African Americans. See Oakley v. City of Memphis, Case No. 07-6274 (6th Cir. 2008), vacated and remanded following Ricci v. DeStefano, 129 U.S. 2658 (2009).

Most recently, in Aldridge v. City of Memphis, the department was the subject of litigation by 26 former captains who were affected by a combination of the 1974 consent decree and a city charter provision granting “captain” status for any firefighter with 30 or more years of service. While technically not a class action, this decision highlights the ongoing problems with injunctive relief in large employment actions, and the impact even decades later.

Back in 1927, nearly 50 years before the litigation started, the City of Memphis amended its charter to grant “captain” status to firefighters after 30 years of service. The rule apparently rested upon the assumption that firefighters would slowly climb the promotional ladder and “achieve” that status at that time. In reality, however, many firefighters, despite good service in their positions, had not served as officers or in more senior positions, and, as a result, continued to serve in those roles even after their technical “promotions.” The primary benefit of captain status became that of increased pay and retirement benefits. As the number of “captains” who achieved the rank through 30-year tenure increased, the city created a dichotomy between “merit” captains, which were now termed “majors,” and “tenure” captains, who continued to be called “captains.” The growing number of unnecessary, yet higher-paid, captains began to create both friction and budget problems in the department. In 2005, the department essentially abolished the position of “tenure captains.” The date is significant because it was only one year after women and minorities began achieving the 30 years of service under the 1974 decree. Those holding the position were given various options, such as retiring or returning to their former rank.

A diverse group of affected tenure captains, including 16 white males, 7 black males, 2 black females, and 1 white female, filed suit, asserting a variety of claims. The claims included those for violation of the city charter, implied contract, and race and sex discrimination. Much of their case rested upon alleged statements by the department director expressing contempt for “tenure captains” generally. The district court granted summary judgment for the defendants, and the Sixth Circuit affirmed. The court concluded that nothing obligated the city to continue tenure captain status and, while the director’s remarks were harshly critical of the tenure captain status, nothing equated that criticism with race, sex, or age. Because the city had based its decision on economic factors, the elimination of the position was lawful.

The Bottom Line: Some cases never die. Expect more class litigation of all stripes as more cities find themselves unable to continue pay and benefits systems created decades ago.