Settlement Near in Water Department Suit

Lynn Horsley, Kansas City Star, April 6, 2006

It will cost Kansas City $240,000 to settle a lawsuit that exposed a water department division as a hub of profanity and racial and ethnic slurs.

The City Council will vote today on a measure to settle the lawsuit brought by Willa Russell, a white female supervisor in the Water Services Department’s pipeline division. Russell claimed she was unfairly demoted in March 2001 after an African-American subordinate alleged she had made racially insensitive comments. The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed Russell had a compelling case.

The council will vote on an ordinance to pay $105,000 in the settlement of claims and $135,000 in attorneys fees.

The lawsuit revealed a pervasive atmosphere of racial insensitivity that was tolerated in the office. Russell submitted the names of 28 employees in the same division “who regularly used profanity or told racist jokes and were not disciplined or demoted” as Russell was, the appellate court said.

“When the only white female supervisor in the relevant work force presents strong evidence of double standards, selective enforcement of human resource policies, and scapegoating, as Willa Russell has in this case, it is for a jury to decide whether she is the victim of intentional race or gender discrimination,” the court said.

Several employees testified at a hearing that Russell had never made comments they considered bigoted or offensive, and they suggested she was singled out for discipline because of her race.

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