Pay $5.8M to Settle Lawsuit Alleging Rampant Racism and Sexism at Water Department, City Lawyers Recommend

(WTTW News)(WTTW News)

Chicago taxpayers should pay $5.8 million to four Black employees of Chicago’s water department who claimed they were discriminated against, city lawyers recommended.

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The lawsuit, filed in 2017, was on the verge of going to trial when the settlement agreement was reached, records show.

U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly ruled there was enough evidence for a jury to conclude “that the city had a custom or policy of condoning racial harassment and discrimination at (the Water Department) as well as inaction in the face of a risk of potential constitutional violations.”

However, Kennelly ruled the four plaintiffs did not present enough evidence to prove they were denied promotions because of their race.

Had the case gone to trial, it would have brought renewed attention to deep-seated problems with the Chicago Department of Water Management under the administration of former Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

The lawsuit was filed after Emanuel fired Water Department Commissioner Barrett Murphy in June 2017 after an investigation by former Inspector General Joseph Ferguson uncovered racist and sexist emails sent among the department’s top brass.

Those emails included an offer of “Chicago Safari Tickets” to multiple high-ranking employees. Ferguson said the email read: “We guarantee that you will see at least one kill and five crime scenes per three-day tour. You’ll also see lots and lots of animals in their natural habitat. Call and book your Chicago Safari today.” Attached to the email was an “image of four white people in safari gear taking pictures of several black individuals who are trying to break into a car,” according to the report.

The lawsuit alleged that managers conspired to “weave a tapestry of hostility that dominates every aspect” of employees’ jobs, including unwanted shifts and work assignments as well as being blocked from advancing in the departments.

Employees routinely used racial slurs — including the n-word and “you people,” to refer to African American employees, according to the lawsuit.

“Black female employees are called bitches and whores on a regular basis,” the lawsuit said.

Employees who filed complaints or objected to that treatment were disciplined inappropriately, according to the lawsuit.

The plaintiffs in the case had asked the judge to allow them to force Emanuel to testify by remote video hookup from Japan, where he serves as President Joe Biden’s ambassador. The city opposed that effort, which will be moot if the Chicago City Council agrees to settle the case as the city’s lawyers recommended.

The City Council’s Finance Committee is scheduled to weigh that recommendation on Monday, and a final vote by the full City Council could come as soon as Wednesday.

In addition, alderpeople will consider a recommendation from city lawyers to pay $1.25 million to a 25-year-old woman who suffered a concussion in 2020 when a light pole fell on her car near Illinois Street and McClurg Court.

The pole that crashed into the woman’s car was rusted at the bottom, according to the police report.

City officials had long known that dozens of poles across the city had become dangerously rusted, but took no action, according to CBS2-TV, which has reported extensively on the issue.

Contact Heather Cherone: @HeatherCherone | (773) 569-1863 | [email protected]

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