Chicago agrees to nearly $6M settlement in discrimination suit against Water Department

The city of Chicago has tentatively agreed to pay almost $6 million to settle a lawsuit with Water Department employees who said they were subjected to racist comments from managers and shorted on overtime and promotions.

Announcement of the settlement comes just a month before the case was to go to trial. U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly had yet to rule on whether former Mayor Rahm Emanuel, now serving as U.S. ambassador to China, would have to testify.

The $5.8 million settlement was announced Monday morning during a status hearing. Attorney Victor Henderson, who represents the plaintiffs, said in a statement the discrimination came "from the very top."

"It was plain to anyone who looked that the racism cascaded from the very top of the organization like water travels down a hill," attorney Victor Henderson said in a statement.

"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," Henderson added.

The agreement covers a dozen current and former Water Department employees, many of whom worked for the department for decades, despite being passed over for better shifts and promotions, and a workplace where white supervisors were accused of routinely making racist and sexist remarks.

The case was filed in 2017, the year a probe by the city inspector general exposed numerous racist emails exchanged between top supervisors at the Water Department.

The city’s inspector general at the time, Joseph Ferguson, called for the firing of seven Water Department employees. Emanuel fired Water Management Commissioner Barret Murphy, managing deputy William Bresnahan and superintendent Paul Hansen, son of former Ald. Bernard Hansen.

The deal must still be finalized and then approved by the City Council. Details of the settlement were not filed in federal court, but Henderson disclosed the amount. A spokeswoman for the city Law Department declined comment.

A lawyer for the city told Kennelly the settlement should be ready for the council to look at in mid-June.

The Sun-Times Media Wire contributed to this report.