Legal consultants warned the Los Angeles City Council on Wednesday that taxpayers risk being hit with a judgment of $7 million or more if the city loses a discrimination lawsuit brought by a black firefighter who was fed a firehouse spaghetti dinner secretly laced with dog food.
With the start of trial in the case now less than two weeks away, the council spent two hours debating a last-minute settlement offer behind closed doors.
But after an attorney for Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said any deal above $1 million would be unacceptable, the council decided to take up the case of Tennie Pierce again Tuesday. The case is set for trial Sept. 24.
Last November, the council attempted to settle the 2004 case for $2.7 million, but Villaraigosa vetoed the deal as too costly. That veto was widely criticized by a contingent of African American community leaders and opposed by six council members -- including President Eric Garcetti -- who believed the city faced the risk of paying more if the case went to trial.
But two months ago, a black lesbian firefighter, Brenda Lee, was awarded $6.2 million in a separate lawsuit against the city that alleged both racial and sexual orientation discrimination. That case was handled by Pierce's attorney, who successfully argued that discrimination had long been a part of Fire Department culture. The uproar over Pierce's case, along with other allegations of harassment and discrimination, prompted the mayor to push out Fire Chief William Bamattre last year.
Four sources who attended the council's closed session Wednesday said that Pierce's attorneys have indicated a willingness to settle for $3.1 million.
According to the sources, who spoke on the condition that they not be named, the council considered two proposals -- one for about $999,000 that was designed to satisfy Villaraigosa, and another that would reach $1.9 million. Some council members believe the higher figure had a greater chance of being accepted by Pierce.
The mayor is believed to want the settlement to remain under $1 million because the city is still likely to pay at least $1 million more in legal fees -- bringing the total dangerously close to the $2.7 million that he vetoed last year. If the case is settled for less than that, Villaraigosa could say he saved taxpayer money.
Council members have been warned that the Pierce case, with its allegations of hazing, racism and retaliation, could be highly unpredictable once it reaches a courtroom. After Villaraigosa's veto, the council retained the Jones Day law firm. Those attorneys told the council Wednesday that a jury verdict against the city could cost $3 million to $7 million, if not more -- essentially the same opinion the city attorney's office offered last year.
"This is the kind of case that could have a huge payout, or it could be a huge flop," Garcetti said after the session.
The apparent settlement offer from Pierce's lawyers was only $400,000 higher than the deal vetoed last year by Villaraigosa -- a move that left some at City Hall wondering whether Pierce is growing worried about his prospects.
Attorney Genie Harrison, who represents Pierce, declined comment.
Villaraigosa vetoed the settlement after photos emerged in the media of firefighters -- including Pierce -- engaged in fire station pranks. Some council members, in particular, Dennis Zine, believe that the dog food incident was just an extension of those pranks and didn't involve racism.
One issue in play is Pierce's pension. He is close to having worked for the city for 20 years and wants the pension he would have earned to be part of a settlement package.
Also on Wednesday, the council agreed to settle an unrelated lawsuit for $2 million. In that case, Sylvia Villareal sued the city after she was struck by a bus in a crosswalk at Whittier Boulevard and Spence Street in Boyle Heights in 2004.
The woman alleged that the city improperly installed a traffic signal so that it faced the wrong direction, causing the accident.