Settlement talks reopen in bias case

Times Staff Writers

Los Angeles officials have reopened talks with the lawyer for former firefighter Tennie Pierce as the two sides seek to settle a racial discrimination case that has upended city politics in recent weeks.

Although officials would not discuss the matter on the record, one person close to the talks said they are trying to strike a deal that would end Pierce's case against the city and close debate over his attempt to secure a $2.7-million payout.

Pierce, a nearly 20-year veteran of the Los Angeles Fire Department, sued the city after colleagues in his station house fed him dog food mixed with spaghetti sauce and then allegedly taunted him for months after the incident.

Details of the new proposed settlement were being closely guarded, but sources familiar with the talks said both sides were attempting to craft an agreement that would structure any payment in a way that would make clear that much of the money to Pierce was to compensate for lost salary and pension benefits -- and that his payout would cover his legal bills as well. One official said the deal also might involve setting aside a portion of the money for Fire Department reforms.

In settlement talks earlier this year, the city and Pierce's attorneys discussed providing at least $1.3 million to buy out his pension plan at a rate as if Pierce was a 30-year employee, according to a transcript of a City Council closed session on the case from June 21. Pierce, at that time, was six months shy of serving 20 years.

Pierce, a tall and broad-shouldered African American, was fed dog food after a 2004 volleyball game in which he proclaimed himself the "Big Dog."

In pursuing his lawsuit against the city, Pierce has argued that the incident and its aftermath were humiliating and made it impossible for him to stay with the department. Critics of the deal have cited Pierce's "Big Dog" remark as evidence that the incident was intended as an innocent joke and not racially motivated, and have noted that Pierce himself admits to having engaged in pranks as a firefighter.

Nevertheless, in the weeks since the council first overwhelmingly approved the deal, it has sparked outrage on both sides, often with a clear racial subtext. In interviews, many African Americans have tended to side with Pierce, while many whites have been markedly less sympathetic.

Last month, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa vetoed the original settlement amid a wave of public criticism and radio talk show jibes. The council then reversed itself and upheld Villaraigosa's veto.

That could propel the Pierce case to trial, but the city's interest in settling grows out of the sense, shared by many city officials, that a jury verdict could end up costing taxpayers more than a deal.

That conviction is based in part on a broader view of the case than the mere act of Pierce eating dog food. Last summer, professional mediator Joel Grossman considered the case and sanctioned the $2.7-million proposed settlement. According to a source familiar with that mediation, Grossman reached that conclusion in part because he believed that Pierce suffered long after the dog food incident.

That source said news of the prank quickly spread throughout the Fire Department, and firefighters across the city would tease Pierce wherever he went. Some called his home and left messages with barking sounds. Others would ask which he preferred, Alpo or Purina. Fire Department officials knew of the teasing but allowed it to continue, thus arguably making them complicit in a workplace environment that Pierce found increasingly hostile.

In a deposition, one top official in the Fire Department -- whom the source described as a high-ranking African American -- conceded that the harassment of Pierce appeared to him to be racially motivated. If the case goes to trial, that deposition could be used against the city and could incline a jury to punish the department and city with a large award. The mediator indicated to the lawyers in the case that that deposition weighed heavily on him in recommending the $2.7-million deal, the source said.

Although the source did not name that fire official, Millage Peaks, a battalion chief who is African American, was deposed in July. On Monday, Peaks declined to comment about his deposition, but he has in the past spoken out publicly about racism and harassment in the Fire Department.

Advocates of settling the case also stressed that the amount includes legal fees. If the case goes to trial and Pierce wins, he probably would be entitled to legal fees on top of whatever a jury might award him in damages. And since the case already has a long history -- that would only grow more extensive given a trial -- some estimate that Pierce's legal bill could top $1 million.

At the same time, there are incentives for Pierce's lawyers to negotiate. Pierce admitted to engaging in pranks himself, which could weaken his case in the eyes of a jury. And some jurors might not sympathize with giving a large sum over what the city could argue was a relatively trivial act of harassment.

Reached Monday, Grossman confirmed that he had mediated the deal, but declined to discuss it, saying he needed permission from the lawyers on both sides. The city attorney's press office declined to comment on negotiations because the case was still being litigated.

Still, any proposed deal is likely to stir controversy again, and some council members are wary of supporting a large payout.

"The overwhelming majority of the public is clearly against the settlement," said Councilman Dennis Zine. "At least in my office, all the calls and e-mails that we received said, 'Councilman, you have the courage to stand up and do what's right.' "

Zine also said that he would be leery of any large settlement offer. "A million dollars is too much," he said.

Councilwoman Jan Perry, by contrast, voted to settle the case for $2.7 million and then voted later to override the mayor's veto of that agreement.

On Monday, she said she did not have any firsthand knowledge of further talks in the case, although she said she had heard buzz around City Hall that negotiations were continuing.

She stressed that she would be open to any deal that "drives the city into stopping such patterns and practices of the city allowing and letting stand a hostile work environment."

Perry said that if talks were ongoing, she wouldn't expect to see another settlement in the neighborhood of $2.7 million. She said "it would be surprising if it was in the same ballpark" because objections by the mayor and some other council members were based on the amount.

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jim.newton@latimes.com

steve.hymon@latimes.com

Times staff writers Sandy Banks and Robert J. Lopez contributed to this report.

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