Watch CBS News

Chicago attorneys reach $5.8 million settlement in lawsuit over claims of racism at Water Department

Water Department workers who accused city of racism agree to $5.8 million settlement
Water Department workers who accused city of racism agree to $5.8 million settlement 00:25

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Attorneys for the City of Chicago have agreed to a tentative $5.8 million settlement in a lawsuit filed by 12 Black employees of the Department of Water Management who claimed they were subjected to a culture of racist discrimination and harassment.

The settlement agreement was reached on Monday, less than a month before the case was set to trial in federal court in Chicago, according to court records. The City Council must approve the proposed settlement before it is finalized.

The settlement covers 12 current and former Water Department employees who claimed in their lawsuit – first filed in 2017 – that they were subjected to a "hostile and abusive work environment."

The lawsuit claims those employees and other Black workers at the Water Department "have been humiliated, harassed, denied opportunities for advancement and additional pay, and threatened daily" by white supervisors and co-workers.

"It was plain to anyone who looked that the racism cascaded from the very top of the organization like water travels down a hill. The racism lasted for decades and affected countless Black employees, which raises the question of why the City's uppermost leaders failed to act. The sad and most obvious answer is that they did not care. Shame on them," said attorney Victor Henderson.

A City's Law Department spokeswoman declined to comment on the settlement agreement. It's unclear when the proposed settlement will be presented to the City Council for a vote.

According to the lawsuit, white managers "communicated and knowingly condoned a policy to all of the supervisors within the Water Department that African-Americans were to be, or could with impunity be, treated with disdain, deprived of promotions, given less overtime, and harassed."

The workers who filed the lawsuit claimed experienced Black employees were expected to train white colleagues, who would then be promoted. In contrast, African American employees would be passed over for better jobs, "and the pattern would repeat."

The lawsuit also claimed top leaders in the department "established and promoted a pattern and practice of engaging in racially discriminatory remarks and actions against African-American employees," including the use of the N-word and other racist terms, and would discipline Black employees who objected to such comments.

While some top supervisors were purportedly fired over their behavior, the lawsuit claims they were allowed to resign or retire with full benefits rather than face any actual punishment.

"Observing the discriminatory pattern of treatment of African-American employees and hearing the racially derogatory language, other Caucasian employees learned that racially discriminatory behavior would not only be tolerated but that they themselves should engage in such behavior," the lawsuit claims.

Black employees who were injured on the job would also not be allowed to return to work on anything less than full duty, while injured white workers were allowed to return to work on light duty, according to the lawsuit. Injured Black workers also would be forced to retire at less than full benefits once their workers' compensation benefits ended.

Barrett Murphy, a former Water Department commissioner who was one of those, resigned in May 2017 at then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel's request after the City's inspector general launched a probe into racist and sexist emails sent within the agency.

The inspector general's final report on its probe in 2018 recommended the city fire five employees, including four supervisors ,"for repeatedly using City resources to send and/or receive racist and offensive emails," suspend another employee for failing to report having received several racist emails from city employees over a period of years, and formally designate a former supervisor had stepped down amid an inquiry into sending racist emails.

According to that probe, the emails included racist jokes about former President Barack Obama, the Black Lives Matter movement, and Black NASCAR drivers.

One email under the subject line "Obama Angry with Texas!!" stated, "Obama will be making no more public speeches in Texas… He claims every time he gets up on stage to make a speech, some South Texas cotton farmers start bidding on him."

Another email with the subject line "Black NASCAR Drivers?" listed 1tenreasons "there are no black NASCAR drivers," including: "Pistol won't stay under front seat," "Engine noise drowns out the rap music," and "They keep trying to carjack Dale Earnhardt Jr."

Another email between two city employees stated "I really need to get out in the woods again if not to just be with the critters, but also to eradicate all the BLM idiots and all the bull**** from the idiots and criminals that back these."

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.