Avoiding a trial that would have likely addressed racial and hazing issues within the Los Angeles City Fire Department, Los Angeles City Council has agreed to pay nearly $1.5 million to an African American firefighter who filed a racial discrimination lawsuit after he was served spaghetti mixed with dog food by his colleagues at a Westchester fire station in 2004.
The City Council voted 9-2 Friday, September 21st, to settle the lawsuit filed by 20-year Los Angeles city firefighter Tennie Pierce against the city.
Under the settlement, the city will pay Pierce $1.43 million, plus $60,000 in back salary, which makes him eligible to receive a 20-year pension.
The Pierce case was originally scheduled to go to trial Monday, September 24th. As part of the agreement, Pierce will drop his claims against the city and retire from the fire department.
After approximately $1.35 million in legal fees are factored in, the total cost to the city of the case will reach about $2.8 million, which is slightly more than the $2.7 million approved by the City Council last year but rejected by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in his first veto.
Villaraigosa spokesman Matt Szabo said the mayor’s primary interest in the case was protecting city taxpayer dollars by trying to negotiate the lowest settlement possible, as well as protect- ing the city against further judgments.
“The agreement is the best possible outcome for the taxpayers,” Villaraigosa said in a statement. “It reduces the original settlement by nearly half, while protecting Angelenos from further liability.”
In his lawsuit, Pierce claimed that he was the victim of racial discrimination when he was served spaghetti mixed with dog food at city Fire Station No. 5 in Westchester three years ago. Pierce also claimed that he was the target of harassment by fellow firefighters after he decided to report the incident, which eventually drove him to leave the fire department.
Two white fire captains and a Latino firefighter were disciplined for the incident, but the case brought increased attention to allegations of discrimination occurring in the fire department. Former longtime Fire Chief William Bamattre stepped down from the position late last year amid the allegations of discrimination and harassment within the agency.
Douglas Barry, who stepped in following Bamattre’s resignation, was named the city’s first African American fire chief earlier this month.
The City Council voted last year to approve a $2.7 million settlement in the Pierce case but Villaraigosa vetoed the settlement after photographs were made public that appeared to show Pierce participating in fire station pranks himself.
Some city officials questioned the settlement rejection, saying that Pierce might have a strong case if the issue went to trial and it could have ended up costing the city more than the initial settlement.
City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who was one of two council members to vote against the settlement September 21st, supported the mayor’s veto last year after learning of Pierce’s reported pranks and said he still did not support the $1.5 million settlement amount, calling it “ridiculous.”
While the settlement negotiated by city officials and Pierce’s lawyers is slightly more than the amount offered last year with legal fees included, the city attorney has backed the agreement, said Nick Velasquez, city attorney spokesman.
“The city attorney supports the settlement as a fiscally prudent outcome for the City of Los Angeles,” Velasquez said.
Pierce’s attorney, Genie Harrison, did not return phone calls from The Argonaut seeking comment on the settlement.
Szabo said the city would likely not have incurred the $1.3 million in legal fees from the case if the city attorney’s office had pushed for a similar settlement last year.
But Velasquez countered that the outside legal firm Jones Day would not have needed to be used in the case if the initial settlement had not been vetoed last year.
“The city attorney’s office was as aggressive as it could be in working to reach a settlement that was the best possible deal for the taxpayers,” Velasquez said.
Now that the Pierce lawsuit has been settled, Rosendahl said city officials need to focus on fixing the problems of hazing in the fire department. The councilman added that he supports giving new chief Barry the tools he will need to get rid of hazing.
“The real issue going forward is to get to the bottom of hazing in the fire department and get rid of that mentality,” Rosendahl said.