The case of 12 white Buffalo firefighters who claim they were passed over for promotion because of their race is being sent back to the lower court that initially ruled in their favor.

What was not clear Wednesday is how the State Court of Appeals decision affects $1.6 million in back pay for the firefighters.

“The plaintiffs now have zero,” Adam Perry, a lawyer for the city, said of the back pay and damages. “It vacates the judgment against the city.”

Perry insists the two sides are back at square one when it comes to monetary damages, but Andrew Fleming, a lawyer for the firefighters, disagrees.

Fleming describes the decision as a setback, but a setback that does not alter the $1.6 million already awarded by a lower court.

In Fleming’s eyes, the Court of Appeals returned the suit to Buffalo so State Supreme Court Justice John A. Michalek could resolve a single, non-monetary issue.

“Obviously, we’re disappointed,” Fleming said of the decision, “but we’re prepared to move forward and litigate the issue that has been returned to Judge Michalek.”

The court ruling is the latest development in a 2007 lawsuit that accused the city of illegally allowing two promotional lists to expire because minority firefighters had performed poorly on civil service exams.

Michalek eventually found in favor of the 12 firefighters, ruling that the city had illegally passed them over for promotions because of their race.

The judge also awarded them $2.8 million in back pay, pension benefits and damages for emotional distress.

On appeal, the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court upheld Michalek’s ruling but lowered the award to $1.6 million.

Both sides appealed that decision to the Court of Appeals, which ruled this week.

The suit was filed after Mayor Byron W. Brown took office but the facts of the case date back to his predecessor, Anthony M. Masiello.

Fleming blames both of them and described as a “nightmare” the anguish his clients have suffered over the years. He also claims the situation has caused morale problems within a large segment of the fire department.

Lawyers for the city took the position early on that none of the firefighters was entitled to damages and later argued that, because of a related federal court case filed by African-American firefighters, the city was legally justified in bypassing the promotional lists.

The 12 firefighters who stand to receive monetary damage awards are Mark A. Abad, Brad J. Arnone, David T. Denz, Timothy R. Cassel, Joseph P. Fahey, Timothy J. Hazelet, Peter F. Kertzie, Peter J. Lotocki, Eugene J. Margerum, Matthew S. Osinski, Thomas J. Reddington and Scott T. Skinner.

No date has been set for Michalek to hear the case.