Finance Committee signs off on $13 million in settlements
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Chicago taxpayers will spend $4.3 million to compensate 59 black women who wanted to be firefighters but were victimized twice — once by the city’s discriminatory handling of a 1995 firefighters entrance exam, then by a biased physical fitness test.
Corporation Counsel Stephen Patton called the surprise settlement the “tail end” of the marathon Lewis case that triggered the hiring of 111 black firefighters.
It’s also one of $13 million in settlements advanced Monday by the City Council’s Finance Committee.
The largest was a $7.6 million settlement to Dean Cage, who spent 14 years in prison for a rape he did not commit before being exonerated by DNA evidence that, his attorneys claim, was available for testing at the time of his conviction.
Cage initially demanded $20 million to $30 million, citing botched handling of evidence by a widely criticized police crime lab that was subsequently abolished.
A $1.2 million settlement goes to Donald Williams, who spent three years in prison for allegedly being an accomplice to a murder after his confession was coerced — not because of physical abuse, but because of “psychological” pressure and alleged “coaching” by authorities.
Two years ago, Chicago borrowed the $78.4 million needed to compensate nearly 6,000 African-American would-be firefighters bypassed by the city’s discriminatory handling of a 1995 entrance exam. The borrowing compounded the cost of a settlement that was twice as high as anticipated.
The city had already agreed to hire 111 bypassed black firefighters. The cash damages went to about 5,900 others who never got that chance.
Last year, aldermen agreed to spend nearly $2 million — and $1.7 million more in legal fees — to compensate dozens of women denied firefighter jobs because of a discriminatory test of physical abilities that City Hall has now scrapped.
On Monday, the two cases converged.
The Finance Committee agreed to spend $4.3 million to compensate 59 black women in the “Lewis class” who tried to take the city up on its offer of firefighters jobs, but were barred from doing so because of the biased test of physical abilities that discriminated against women.
“We had a problem with that test. We weren’t happy with the results. And we worked hand-in-glove with the Fire Department to institute a new test — a test that’s used by 80 other municipalities in the state and almost all of the other major fire departments,” Patton told aldermen.
“Unfortunately, we fixed that problem after Lewis and these 59 women claim that, but for that discriminatory test, they would have passed and, if they passed, they would have been able to participate in the Lewis settlement.”
The settlement is named for Arthur Lewis, Jr., one of the African American firefighter applicants who sued the city under the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Patton said the “potential exposure” to Chicago taxpayers was $34 million today and upward of $40 million if the settlement is delayed.
The actual cost of the settlement depends on how many of the women get jobs as firefighters.
“What we negotiated was any of these 59 women who want to take the new exam and pass it will be able to join the Fire Department, increase our gender diversity, increase our racial diversity.
“To the extent they choose to do that, we will provide for them the same benefits that members of the Lewis remedial class got, and that’s expensive because we’ve got to make the prior pension payments and so forth. Everybody else will get a flat $10,000 to release all of their claims. In addition, attorneys fees are well in excess of $1 million. The best we could do there was to negotiate a cap of $995,000 and reserve the right to fight those fees.”
Patton applauded a Chicago Fire Department with a long and documented history of discrimination for making “great strides” to ensure that a testing process that’s been the subject of almost non-stop litigation over the years “withstands legal muster.”
“We should see benefits in terms of a more diverse Fire Department — and we already are. Both racially diverse and gender-diverse,” he said.
Ald. Joe Moore (49th) couldn’t resist the temptation to blame former Mayor Richard M. Daley — without mentioning Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s predecessor by name — for dragging out the marathon case.
“There was a group of us aldermen who urged the city to settle the Lewis case before it went to trial and there was a stubborn refusal to do so and, as a result, we got hit with a huge, huge judgment,” Moore said.
Turning to Patton, Moore said, “I congratulate you on attempting to, as much as possible, mitigate the fall-out from our failure to acknowledge our past wrongs with respect to diversifying the Fire Department and also taking meaningful steps to address those past wrongs. We got out of this as best as we could given the fact that there was that stubborn refusal to acknowledge our previous liability.”