Ruling from the bench today, U.S. District Judge William Smith issued a favorable decision in the ACLU’s discrimination lawsuit against the Town of North Smithfield and its plans to hire en masse 21 white males for the Town’s new fire department. Last August, Judge Smith issued a temporary restraining order barring the hiring from taking place. The ACLU’s lawsuit, handled by volunteer attorneys Lynette Labinger and John Dineen, is on behalf of Christine Melendez, who had been prevented from applying for a firefighter position because of the Town’s plans.
Last year, the Town, which has no fire department of its own, took formal action to acquire the private fire and rescue service that has been serving North Smithfield. In doing so, the Town voted to hire en masse the service’s all white and all male firefighting force. Before taking this action, the General Assembly took the unprecedented step of granting the Town an exemption from the state’s Fair Employment Practices Act (FEPA), the state law prohibiting employment discrimination on the basis of race, gender and age. The exemption barred any individual from filing an employment discrimination claim under FEPA for the Town’s mass hiring. However, the law did not – and legally could not – exempt the Town from federal anti-discrimination statutes.
In issuing his ruling, however, the Judge avoided the numerous constitutional and discrimination claims raised by the ACLU on Melendez’ behalf. Instead, he held that the takeover plans violated the town charter, which authorizes creation of a municipal fire department only through an open, competitive process and after the town Personnel Board has set hiring standards.
It is unclear whether, in light of the ruling, the Town will continue its efforts to take over the private fire and rescue service. The ACLU had argued that the issue was not whether Melendez would get hired, but ensuring that she would have the same opportunity to compete as any other applicant.