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Ex-Pasadena firefighter wins bias suit

Carter Stephens is awarded $1.17 million after enduring what he said was five years of racial harassment.

December 29, 2007|Hector Becerra | Times Staff Writer

A jury awarded $1.17 million Friday to a black former Pasadena firefighter who said he was forced to retire after complaining for five years about other firefighters leaving blood, urine and feces in his bedding and scrawling a swastika on his equipment.

The penalty was just the latest case of a black firefighter alleging discrimination against a fire department in Los Angeles and surrounding communities.

According to Carter Stephens' suit, supervisors and co-workers also put mucus on his uniform and a captain referred to him by the "N" word.

Stephens, 55, said he felt vindicated after enduring racially-motivated attacks for five years.

"The general thought was, 'You just have go ahead and take a beating. Maybe it'll stop,' " he said. "That's what I tried to do. But it wouldn't stop."

Stephens said he filed numerous complaints to his supervisors, but instead of getting better, things got worse.

According to media reports of the trial, attorneys for the city argued that Stephens was not out for justice but for money. Under questioning, Stephens acknowledged that sometimes it was red-colored ink and not blood that was left on his bedding.

He also testified that he was once fired by the department after being convicted of charges related to the flattening of car tires. Stephens got his job back after an arbitrator's ruling, according to media reports.

Pasadena Mayor Bill Bogaard said it was too early for him to appraise what had happened.

"I'm just reluctant to add any wisdom or meaningful observations to this case until I'm briefed by the city attorney," Bogaard said. "We have cases going all the time, and the city's record of success is very good."

Stephens' case was the most recent lump dealt to an L.A. area fire department involving either racial or gender discrimination.

The highest-profile case involved former L.A. city Firefighter Tennie Pierce, who alleged that he had been served a spaghetti dinner spiked with dog food while on duty at Fire Station No. 5 in Westchester.

Some colleagues described it as a prank that played on the 6-foot-5 firefighter's nickname of "Big Dog." But in September, the City Council voted to pay Pierce nearly $1.5 million.

The settlement averted a trial that could have revealed embarrassing details about hazing in the city Fire Department.

In July, a jury awarded $6.3 million to a former female city firefighter who said she had been harassed because she was black and a lesbian.

A month earlier, a jury awarded $3.75 million to a veteran city fire captain who contended that he was retaliated against for not making training exercises easier for women.

Last year, an audit of the city Fire Department found that 87% of African Americans and nearly 80% of women surveyed said they were aware of or had experienced discrimination. The audit also found that hazing and pranks were part of firefighting culture, sometimes blurring the line between harassment and firehouse high jinks.

The persistent allegations of racial and sexual discrimination within the department prompted then-Chief William Bamattre to step down a year ago.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson, an author and analyst who heads the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable, said he was not surprised by the verdict against Pasadena.

"I think if you look at the history of these fire departments, even more so than police departments, they've always operated under the radar," he said. "It's always been a good old boys network."

Hutchinson said he thinks the problem has less to do with racism than with an ingrained culture "that allows these kinds of things to happen."

Stephens, who joined the Pasadena Fire Department in 1987, said that when he tried to challenge that culture, he experienced retaliation.

Stephens said that in 2002 he injured his knee, but that a doctor told him the following year that he was fit to return to work. However, a city doctor declared Stephens "unfit for duty at this time," and the city prepared a disability retirement application for him, according to the lawsuit.

Stephens said the city wanted him to go away because of his complaints about harassment. He said the problems started late in his career in Pasadena and corresponded to a change in management within the Fire Department. In 2005, he was retired from the department.

Attorneys for the city of Pasadena did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Since leaving the Fire Department, Stephens has worked low-paying jobs, including stints as a shoe salesman at Macy's. After the verdict, Stephens said he looked forward to going back to school.

"I'm looking to further my education," he said. "I don't really have any concrete plans. I have a couple of ideas in my head. Maybe open a business."

But Stephens said nothing would make up for the career he had to give up.

"I attempted to endure things because I wanted to do the job that I loved," he said. "Being a firefighter was absolutely my dream job. I loved being a fireman, and I was a very good firefighter."

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hector.becerra@latimes.com

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