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Another firefighter harassment case, another big jury award. Why do we keep risking taxpayer dollars?

July 07, 2007

SUDDENLY THAT $2.7 million the City Council offered Tennie Pierce -- the black firefighter who sued the city for racial discrimination after co-workers laced his dinner with dog food -- is starting to look like a bargain. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa vetoed that settlement, opting to let a jury decide whether Pierce deserves compensation.

Well, this week a jury handed a whopping $6.2 million to Brenda Lee, a gay, black firefighter, finding that she was harassed because of her race and sexual orientation. She cited arbitrary, grueling drills and urine in her mouthwash.

This is the third payout in connection with Lee's case. In March, a jury awarded $1.75 million to firefighter Lewis "Steve" Bressler, who said he was retaliated against for supporting Lee. Gary Mellinger, who like Bressler is white and made the same retaliation claim as well as one on age bias, settled his part of the case in November for $350,000. That's $8.3-million worth of anti-gay harassment and racial and age discrimination. When the Fire Department sets out to discriminate, it certainly covers all the bases.

What makes these payouts infuriating is that the behavior behind them has been all but banished from every other place of business in this country. There should be no courtroom deliberation regarding urine-contaminated mouthwash or the comical merits of dog food for dinner. We should be focusing on the Fire Department's heroics -- on display again just weeks ago as it contained the Griffith Park fire and saved surrounding homes. As that blaze reminded us, the Los Angeles Fire Department is an elite emergency response agency that saves lives and property in one of the most difficult and dangerous areas to cover in the United States.

Yet it's also, unfortunately, home to an enduring frat boy culture that roils the department with alarming frequency. Over the past 30 years, two chiefs have been forced to resign, millions of dollars have been paid out in settlements and judgments and the number of female firefighters has actually declined. Now the Lee settlement is making news from New York to North Carolina, Australia to Britain. And gay media throughout the world have taken note.

Of course, there's no telling what a jury will decide in the Pierce case -- one recently rejected the claim of another black firefighter, Jabari S. Jumaane, a 21-year veteran who sued the city for $7 million. And there's always a chance the Pierce jury will have a Delta House sense of humor. But the gamble that the city can successfully defend the Fire Department against Pierce's claims just got a lot riskier.

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