By Edith Honan
NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York City's fire department has engaged in "intentional discrimination" against black applicants, and the problem goes back at least 40 years, a federal judge in Brooklyn ruled on Wednesday.
In 2007, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a class action lawsuit accusing the Fire Department of New York of having intentionally racially discriminatory hiring practices.
Last year, U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis ruled the department's written exams used since 1999 to screen and rank applicants unfairly excluded hundreds of qualified black applicants.
On Wednesday Garaufis went a step further, ruling there had been a "pattern and practice of intentional discrimination against blacks."
"This pattern of underrepresentation has remained essentially unchanged since at least the 1960s," Garaufis found.
Blacks make up about one quarter of the city's population. But at the time the lawsuit was brought in 2007, black firefighters accounted for less than 4 percent of the department -- or 303 of the city's 8,998 firefighters.
Georgia Pestana, a lawyer for the city, said New York "vehemently" disagrees with the ruling but cannot appeal until a final judgment is entered.
"Contrary to the court's opinion, it is the city's view that there is simply no evidence that the city ever intended to discriminate against black applicants," Pestana said in a statement.
A court hearing on the matter will outline the remedy. No date for the hearing has been set.
Anjana Samant, a lawyer for the Center for Constitutional Rights -- which represented a fraternal order of black firefighters and three individuals -- said the ruling makes the city accountable "for decades of unchecked intentional discrimination in the FDNY."
"While people have been clamoring for firehouses to be more representative of their communities for years, this ruling demands that the city clean up its mess and fashion programs and remedies to correct the past effects of its discriminatory hiring process," she said in a statement.
(Reporting by Edith Honan; Editing by Xavier Briand)