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L.A. to pay black firefighter $1.5-million settlement

September 22, 2007|David Zahniser | Times Staff Writer

Averting a trial that could have revealed embarrassing details about hazing within the Los Angeles Fire Department, the City Council voted Friday to pay nearly $1.5 million to a black firefighter who was served a meal laced with dog food by his colleagues.

The agreement brought to a close a dispute that had caused racial division in the city, compelled Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to impose his first veto and prompted the departure of the city's longtime fire chief.

Firefighter Tennie Pierce had filed suit stemming from an incident in 2004 in which he was served a spaghetti dinner that secretly included dog food while he was on duty at Fire Station No. 5 in Westchester. Although some colleagues described it as a prank that played on the 6-foot-5 Pierce's nickname, "Big Dog," Pierce alleged racial discrimination.

The case originally was headed for trial Monday. A spokesman for City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo said the settlement reached Friday afternoon pushed the total cost of the case to $2.8 million once $1.3 million in legal expenses accumulated by the city since December are factored in. That is slightly more than the $2.7-million settlement offered by the council last year but rejected by Villaraigosa.

This time, the mayor gave his blessing to the deal with Pierce, a 19-year firefighter who lives in Cerritos. Hours after the council vote, Villaraigosa released a statement saying the decision "reduces the original settlement by nearly half while protecting Angelenos from further liability."

Delgadillo spokesman Nick Velasquez, whose boss had come under fire for his handling of the Pierce case last year, noted that the city had racked up about 10 months of legal bills from a private law firm hired to handle the suit since the veto.

Villaraigosa spokesman Matt Szabo said the legal fees could have been avoided if Delgadillo had pushed for a lower settlement a year ago.

"The additional costs were incurred after the council was unsatisfied with the city attorney's handling of the case," Szabo said.

Council President Eric Garcetti, not Delgadillo, served as a go-between during settlement talks last week, after he and his colleagues were told by their private legal firm Jones Day that a jury verdict against the city could cost taxpayers $7 million or more. At the time, Villaraigosa had said he would not approve any amount above $999,999.

Garcetti said he hoped Friday's deal would allow Pierce and his family to "move on with the next chapter" of their lives.

"I'm pleased that this case has been resolved, that we can get back to being focused on the hard work of improving the Fire Department and restoring its reputation," Garcetti said.

People on both sides of the case privately said the deal spared Pierce the trauma of a jury trial while giving Villaraigosa the ability to say that he had held firm and sent a message to other would-be plaintiffs seeking money from the city.

But it also prevented the city from having the Fire Department's checkered history of harassment and retaliation laid out to a jury that might have opted to send a message to City Hall by awarding much more money to Pierce than the city originally offered. Problems within the department had been noted in a report by City Controller Laura Chick, and fire officials recently confirmed that the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has begun investigating some employees' racial bias claims.

Pierce's lawyer, Genie Harrison, said her client settled because it was in the best interests of his family.

"He is moving on to the next chapter of his life knowing that he has made a contribution to changing the Los Angeles Fire Department culture," she said. Her fees will come out of Pierce's $1.5-million settlement.

Still, one community leader in South Los Angeles who opposed Villaraigosa's veto said he saw little evidence that the settlement would address discrimination or prevent lawsuits.

"This is only one case, and this is only one settlement," said Earl Ofari Hutchinson, president of the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable. "We certainly know that we have other lawsuits essentially alleging the same things as Tennie Pierce -- that is, some aspect of racial or gender discrimination within the Fire Department."

Under the terms of the agreement, Pierce, 51, will drop all of his claims and retire from the Fire Department.

The settlement will allow him to receive a little more than $1.4 million, plus $60,000 in back pay -- a move that would classify him as a 20-year city employee and give him a higher level of pension benefits.

Friday's settlement brought the total amount of legal payouts at the Fire Department to $13.5 million over the past fiscal year, according to Delgadillo's spokesman. For example, a jury ordered the city to pay Brenda Lee, a black lesbian firefighter with the same attorney as Pierce, an award of $6.2 million.

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