First & Spring

City is paying heavily for LAFD bias suits

Lawsuits filed against the L.A. Fire Department for discrimination are costing the city millions of dollars

The Los Angeles Fire Department has been hit with a steady stream of personnel lawsuits over the last decade, some of them extraordinarily expensive.

The City Council spent $1.5 million to settle a discrimination lawsuit filed by a black firefighter who was deliberately fed dog food by his colleagues. Council members paid an additional $2.5 million to two white firefighters punished in that incident, who said they too faced racial bias.

Recoiling from a string of payouts, voters in 2009 established a watchdog at the Fire Department to review the agency's handling of employee misconduct cases. What they got instead were more employee lawsuits. But these cases were filed by the very people charged with keeping a lid on legal claims.

Two years ago, three city lawyers filed lawsuits saying the Fire Department watchdog, Independent Assessor Stephen Miller, had engaged in racial and gender discrimination as he pushed for access to personnel records. The lawyers, each of them black women, said aides to then-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa should have stopped Miller from engaging in a campaign of harassment.

Miller, who is white, filed his own lawsuit against the city, saying the three lawyers had used race and gender as a "weapon" to retaliate against him for disagreeing with — and publicly criticizing — their work. Miller, who was dismissed from his job in 2013, said former City Atty. Carmen Trutanich should have reined in his staff and given Miller access to personnel records.

The financial repercussions of the dispute are now being felt. In January, city officials quietly paid $100,000 to settle the lawsuit filed by one of the three lawyers, Assistant City Atty. Vivienne Swanigan, now employed by City Atty. Mike Feuer. The two other attorneys — one also employed by Feuer, the other recently retired — are seeking similar payouts, according to their lawyer. Meanwhile, outside legal bills from the cases are on track to reach $1.2 million.

Councilman Paul Krekorian, who heads the budget committee, had no comment on the dispute. But Walter Moore, who signed the ballot argument in 2009 opposing the creation of a Fire Department watchdog, described the legal fight as another sign of poor management at City Hall. No matter which side wins, he said, the city will end up paying.

"The only people guaranteed to lose in this scenario are taxpayers," Moore said.

Moore ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2009, the same year voters approved Charter Amendment A establishing the independent assessor position. Months later, the Fire Commission — a group appointed by Villaraigosa — hired Miller.

Miller was not shy about speaking his mind. Soon after he was hired, he released a report saying that the city attorney's office was not consistently giving the Fire Department "timely and adequate legal services." He also said the Fire Department needed a single point of contact within Trutanich's office.

Weeks later, Senior Assistant City Atty. Zna Houston, who was assigned to handle labor issues for Trutanich, instructed the fire chief to limit Miller's attendance at meetings on employee discipline, according to Miller's lawsuit.

Miller said the city's lawyers were retaliating against him. Houston and another lawyer, Deputy City Atty. Janet Jackson, countered that the city would be legally vulnerable if they provided Fire Department personnel information to someone who lacked the authority to review such matters. Miller disagreed, saying he could not properly audit the Fire Department's handling of employee misconduct complaints without that access.

As the disagreement grew more intense, Houston sought to determine whether Miller's actions were racially motivated, according to her lawsuit. She and Swanigan worked with a white lawyer in Trutanich's office to prepare a new memo for Miller on his job duties — but did not mention that they helped draft it. Miller, Houston's lawsuit states, responded favorably to the information presented by the white attorney.

In an interview, Miller's attorney called the lawyers' bias allegations "absurd." Dennis Wagner, who represents Miller, said his client agreed with one of the memos because it was "legally correct," not because of the race of its author.

Things got more heated from there. In 2012, Miller filed with the state bar a complaint — later closed without disciplinary action — against Jackson, Houston and other city attorneys. He pressed the Fire Commission to release records that would allow him to continue pursuing that complaint.

Houston and Jackson viewed Miller's behavior as outrageous, telling Villaraigosa aides that Miller was making false and malicious attacks, according to their lawsuit. Jackson, who was assigned to the Fire Commission, said one of Villaraigosa's appointees on that panel also was engaging in racial and gender discrimination.

Alvin L. Pittman, the attorney for Jackson and Houston, said his clients experienced "tremendous harassment" and mental and emotional distress as a result of the dispute. Both saw their careers "severely damaged" and had their advice increasingly questioned, he said.

In many ways, the dispute over information access at the Fire Department was a proxy fight between two former elected officials: Villaraigosa and Trutanich. Both are now gone from City Hall, as are many of their aides.

Wagner, Miller's attorney, said the legal dispute shows that city leaders don't want independent oversight at the Fire Department. Miller learned that lesson at a great expense, Wagner said, losing both his job and his shot at a city pension.

"Perhaps, in retrospect, had Miller played a more political game … maybe that would have led to a longer tenure" in his job, Wagner said. "But ultimately, everyone was skirting the issue: him being allowed to have the unfettered access he needed to do the job."

Pittman said his clients should not bear responsibility for the legal fight that developed. "City attorneys have to be able to give advice," he said. "And the only way to allow city attorneys to give advice is to have some measure of protection for them against these kinds of vicious actions."

None of this surprises Moore, the 2009 mayoral candidate. From the beginning, he argued that the city doesn't need additional layers of oversight. What it needs, he said, is stronger management from the mayor, city attorney and others.

"You can't fix a broken system by having more layers" of government, he said. "You've just got to have better people."

david.zahniser@latimes.com

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