Minority firefighters had sued the Buffalo fire department for a pattern and practice of discrimination that had disadvantaged minorities in their ability to obtain jobs and promotions, and the courts had imposed quotas and other remedial efforts on the department.
This apparently led to the department not promoting 12 white firefighters, who sued the city on grounds of reverse discrimination. During part of the long-running discrimination litigation against the fire department, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled in another case that an employer cannot discriminate against white employees simply because the employer fears a potential lawsuit from minorities.
The Supreme Court had stated that an employer must have actual evidence that minorities could prevail in a disparate impact lawsuit before it can engage in reverse discrimination.
In the city's appeal, New York's highest court noted that the human resources director had provided conflicting testimony during the litigation as to the city's reason for allowing the promotion eligibility list to expire.
At one point, he had testified that the city was worried regarding the potential for a discrimination lawsuit was a factor in allowing the promotion eligibility list to expire, and the lower court applied standard from the Supreme Court that such speculative grounds were invalid and awarded the white firefighters $2.7 million in damages.
The HR director had previously testified that the motivation was to "undo racial imbalance," and this factual conflict led the Court of Appeals to note that the summary judgment was not appropriate given the conflicting statements.
Summary judgment is only permitted when there are no questions of fact in a case. It can be used to end a case almost before it begins, but this decision illustrates the need to have all facts in a case clarified before a court grants summary judgment.
Bna.com, "New York High Court Orders Rehearing of Firefighters' Reverse Discrimination Victory," Hassan Kanu, February 17, 2015