Mayor Richard M. Daley’s office pressured the chancellor of the City Colleges of Chicago to hire a Hispanic woman for an open position over a qualified black employee, a federal discrimination lawsuit alleges.
Ramona Shaw, who was an associate vice chancellor in the district’s human resources department until she was fired in late 2006, says she was let go after she raised concerns that black workers at the district were being paid less than their Hispanic peers.
Shaw, who is black, says she was passed up in 2004 for a promotion to be the vice chancellor of human resources. She consistently received high marks for leadership and professionalism in performance reviews during her seven years with the district, the lawsuit says.
Shaw is seeking to regain her old job, to be paid back wages and to be awarded unspecified damages.
Xiomara Cortes Metcalfe took over the vice chancellor post in April 2004. Shaw says Metcalfe is Hispanic, but in court documents, the City Colleges denied that and described her as black. Metcalfe said in a deposition she has Hispanic ancestors.
If Shaw were Hispanic, “she would have been appointed to the vice chancellor position,” says Fern Trevino, who is Shaw’s attorney.
Franita Tolson, a visiting law professor at Northwestern University and an expert on employment law, says there are some crucial gray areas related to race that the court will have to sort out.
“It’s gray because under Title VII (of the Civil Rights Act), you have to prove that actions were taken because of race,” Tolson says. “And when you have members of the same racial group, it’s very difficult to prove that actions were taken because of race.”
Around the time Metcalfe was hired, Shaw questioned Chancellor Wayne Watson, the lawsuit says, about why she was not named interim vice chancellor, a common move at the City Colleges of Chicago until a permanent replacement is found.
“Chancellor Watson stated that he had been pressured by the Mayor’s Office to appoint a Hispanic to the Vice Chancellor position,” Shaw’s lawsuit says.
In a deposition conducted last year, Watson denied saying that, Trevino says.
But Trevino says Watson told a similar story of mayoral pressure to another person, though Trevino declined to say who that person is.
City Colleges spokeswoman Elsa Tullos says the district does not comment on pending litigation. Watson declined to comment on the matter. A spokesman for Mayor Richard M. Daley says he didn’t know about the case and could not comment on it.
The 12 depositions Trevino conducted last fall have not been transcribed yet, she says, and the Daily News was not allowed to review them. In addition to Watson, she deposed Board Chairman Jim Tyree and board member Gloria Castillo.
The two sides failed to come to agreement during a settlement conference last week and the case, filed in late 2007, is now heading for a trial.
While the charge of mayoral pressure is one of the underlying issues in the suit, it’s not directly connected with Shaw’s termination. For more than two years after Metcalfe was appointed, there were relatively few problems in the human resources department, the lawsuit says.
Then in September 2006, a black employee in the department complained that Hispanics were getting preferential treatment, and Shaw passed that information on to Metcalfe and other top administrators.
“Ms. Shaw reported that and then she also expressed concerns about unequal pay and it wasn’t that she knew or didn’t know,” Trevino says. “She didn’t know at the time whether there was a legitimate issue there or not, but she certainly had a legitimate question about it.”
Metcalfe allegedly grew angry when she found out about the complaint, telling Shaw, “‘That [expletive]. I’m sick of him. I want him out of here,’ the lawsuit says.
Metcalfe denied that outburst in court documents but admitted it in her deposition, Trevino says.
In November 2006, two other black employees in the human resources department complained that Hispanics were being paid more to perform similar jobs. Shaw had similar concerns, which she voiced to Metcalfe. A month later, Shaw was fired.
“Defendants City Colleges, Watson and Cortes Metcalfe retaliated against (Shaw) for having engaged in the protected activity of complaining of race discrimination against herself and for opposing discrimination against other employees,” the lawsuit says.
In a court filing last year, the City Colleges said Shaw was fired for “insubordination and unprofessional conduct,” and denied that it was retaliatory.
“It is a really interesting case,” Tolson says. “It shows that the law hasn’t quite caught up with our racial realities.”
Daily News Staff Writer Peter Sachs covers higher education. He can be reached at 773.362.5002, ext. 18, or peter [at] chitowndailynews [dot] org.