According toattorney Patricia Benassi, the city never complied with the terms of its sexual harassment settlement more than a decade ago, paying several hundred thousand less than agreed upon to the women. Today, an appealate court agreed the city owed the women this money, but instead of the hundreds of thousands, it is now more than $3 million.
It didn’t have to be this way, said a Chicago-based attorney who represents nearly 30 women who could potentially receive millions in back pay and interest from the city as a result of an appellate court ruling last week.
The 3rd District Court in Ottawa held on Wednesday that the city of Peoria failed to uphold its end of a deal to make sure its male and female employees were paid the same if they were doing the same job with the same experience. Rather, Judges Tom M. Lytton, Mary K. O’Brien and Robert L. Carter held the city was at fault because a new pay scale lowered a person’s seniority so while pay did increase, it wasn’t what the women should have received.
Attorney George Galland said he approached the city of Peoria and its attorney, Randy Ray, in 2000, shortly before filing a lawsuit on behalf of the women. His goal: get the woman, who were mostly dispatchers and clerks, money owned to them under a 1996 settlement of a discrimination case.
"I thought we would settle this case. Back then (in 2000), had we settled, the city would have paid way less than $1 million and almost nothing in attorneys’ fees," Galland said. "Then, the phones went dead at the other end. We had no choice but to sue them."
City Hall could now be on the hook for between $2 million and $3 million, plus attorneys’ fees, depending upon the estimate. City Attorney Randy Ray, while declining to discuss specifics, said the number was "incorrect," and likely lower.
The city has 30 days from the ruling date to decide whether to appeal the matter to a full panel of appellate judges, possibly appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court or just allow the case to come back to Peoria County, where the two sides will haggle over damages.
Ray said on Monday that he has not had a chance to discuss the matter with attorneys from the Peoria law firm Hinshaw & Culbertson, who defended the city on the matter. He did say the matter would likely be brought before the City Council at tonight’s meeting.
In 1993, about 50 female city employees sued in federal court, claiming they weren’t paid the same as their male counterparts. The case was settled in 1996. As part of that settlement, the city dropped its old system of 45 pay grades with 15 steps in each grade and moved to one with 11 pay grades with 18 steps in each.
Under the pay scale, a step is roughly the amount of time a person has been with the city.
Everyone got some form of raise, but 29 of the women cried foul, saying they did not get their raises as anticipated.
Rather, they believed they got less money than they thought they should have, which would have been a direct violation of the settlement, which states: "No plaintiff’s pay grade, step, wages or benefits will be lowered as a result of the findings of the reclassification project."
For example, one woman was a grade 524 and step 15 under the old plan and a grade 218 and step 12 under the new one. The woman’s original attorney, Patricia Bennasi, said that was against the agreement.
"They failed to give women credit for their seniority with the city. It’s a very simple breach," she said.
Ray, however, saw it differently, as did Judge James Shadid in 2006. Shadid ruled in October 2006 the city was in compliance with the agreement, which prompted the appeal.
"We don’t think that we violated the contract," Ray said. "In this reclass(ification), those plaintiffs benefited greatly, as did every employee in the city, including those who have been hired since then."
Essentially, the city’s position was that the new system was different from the old one and, therefore, couldn’t be compared.
To Ray, the issue boils down to "a few people who wanted to be treated better than everyone else."
Benassi, who is not currently an attorney on the pending issue, disagrees, saying the city has stalled the issue for years. Some of the woman have retired. At least three have died.
"They thought they could get away with this, but we never give up," she said.
Last Wednesday’s ruling mimics an earlier set of rulings in 2003. Then, a trial judge, John Barra, found in the city’s favor. The appellate court overturned and sent it back, which led to a new flurry of motions, Shadid’s ruling and last week’s decision.
Andy Kravetz can be reached at (309) 686-3283 or firstname.lastname@example.org.