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Cobb County settles with DOJ over biases against Black firefighters

Fire department’s unnecessary reliance on job applicants’ credit history considered ‘discriminatory and unlawful’
Portrait of African American firefighter in uniform and helmet near fire engine. (Photo credit: Shutterstock.com/VAKS-Stock Agency)

The Justice Department has secured an agreement with Cobb County, Georgia, resolving the United States’ claim that the county just north of Atlanta violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (Title VII) by using credit checks and a written exam that discriminated against African American firefighter candidates. Cobb County has stopped using the challenged hiring practices and will pay $750,000 in back pay to applicants disqualified by those practices. The county will also hire up to 16 of those applicants with retroactive seniority.


“This settlement should send a strong message to employers that reliance on a job applicant’s credit history may be discriminatory and unlawful,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “Consumer credit checks create a Catch-22 for people seeking access to job opportunities. Cobb County’s hiring practices created artificial barriers that prevented qualified Black job candidates from being considered for firefighter positions. Discriminatory barriers, like credit checks, not only cost candidates a fair chance at a job, they also prevent the public from being served by firefighters drawn from the most robust hiring pool possible.”


“Every person, regardless of race, deserves an equal opportunity to compete for jobs. Employers should identify and eliminate policies and procedures that create a discriminatory impact on applicants based on race,” said U.S. Attorney Ryan K. Buchanan for the Northern District of Georgia. “Our office will continue to devote resources to eliminate prejudicial policies that illegally deprive qualified candidates of a fair chance to compete for employment opportunities.”

The department’s lawsuit, filed in the Northern District of Georgia, alleges that Cobb County discriminated in its firefighter hiring process in two ways. First, by screening out candidates based on their credit histories. Many employers use credit checks when screening applicants based on a mistaken assumption that credit history is a measure of character or job fitness. As the department alleges, Cobb County could not establish a connection between credit history and job performance or character and thus did not have a lawful reason for using credit history as part of its hiring process. Second, Cobb County ranked candidates based on their performance on a written examination designed to determine placement level in college classes. The department alleges that these practices disproportionately removed African Americans from consideration for firefighter positions without providing evidence that candidates who advanced based on these practices were more qualified to serve as firefighters.


Title VII is a federal statute prohibiting employment discrimination based on race, sex, color, national origin, and religion. Title VII prohibits not only intentional discrimination but also prohibits employment practices that result in a disparate impact upon a protected group unless such practices are job-related and consistent with business necessity.

The full and fair enforcement of Title VII is a top priority of the Civil Rights Division. More information about the Civil Rights Division can be found at www.justice.gov/crt and more information about the division’s Employment Litigation Section can be found at www.justice.gov/crt/employment-litigation-section.

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