New award in firefighter harassment case

Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

One of the costliest racial harassment cases in the history of the Los Angeles City Fire Department grew more expensive Monday when a jury awarded $1.6 million to two white captains suspended after a black firefighter they supervised had his meal laced with dog food.

Capts. John Tohill and Chris Burton sued the city in October 2006, alleging that they were made scapegoats for the misconduct of a Latino firefighter who placed dog food in the spaghetti dinner of firefighter Tennie Pierce four years ago.

Firefighters: An article in Section A on Tuesday about a $1.6-million jury award to two white firefighters in a hazing incident included a list of other costs to the city of Los Angeles in the same case. In the 2004 incident, black firefighter Tennie Pierce’s dinner was laced with dog food; the accompanying list said $1.5 million was awarded to Pierce four years ago. In fact, Pierce did not receive a $1.5-million settlement from the city until last September. —

In November 2006, the City Council voted to award Pierce more than $2.7 million for racial harassment, but the settlement was eventually reduced to $1.5 million after a political firestorm erupted at City Hall. The city spent an additional $1.3 million on legal fees in the Pierce case.

The city has not yet totaled the legal expenses for the white firefighters’ case. But with Monday’s verdict, the city’s bill for the dog food incident already has reached $4.5 million.

“They’re happy they were vindicated,” attorney Gregory W. Smith said of the two fire captains. “But they wish this never happened.”

In the last two years, the 3,900-member department -- considered among the nation’s best -- has been rocked by allegations of unchecked racism, discrimination and harassment that have cost taxpayers more than $13 million in legal payouts, not including Monday’s verdict. Among the payouts was a $6.2-million jury award last summer to Brenda Lee, who alleged that she was harassed off the force because she is black and a lesbian.

But to many white firefighters, the Pierce case came to symbolize a disciplinary system skewed in favor of women and nonwhite firefighters.

“When it comes to a minority -- female or male -- and there’s the word ‘discrimination,’ everybody runs and hides and puts their heads in the sand,” said Capt. Mark Khitikian, a 34-year veteran. “The department is afraid to look at these things fairly.”

In their lawsuit, Burton and Tohill, who have been with the department 34 and 26 years, respectively, alleged they were discriminated against because they are white. The discrimination persisted throughout the inquiry that followed the Oct. 14, 2004, hazing of Pierce at Fire Station 5 in Westchester, they alleged.

“When Burton and Tohill found out about the practical joke, they took immediate steps to address the incident,” the lawsuit says, alleging that Pierce himself asked that the matter be “kept quiet” and that it was not racially motivated.

Additionally, the fire captains alleged, the department “never conducted a formal investigation” of the incident but instead disciplined them under “political pressure” from city officials. (The Times reported two years ago that two senior-level department commanders called for a full investigation of the incident but were rebuffed by top brass.)

Under the jury award returned Monday, Burton, who will be retiring in the next few years, received $507,500 for past pain and suffering, $72,500 for future pain and suffering and $11,808 in past lost earnings. Tohill received $467,250 in lost future earnings, $367,500 for past pain and suffering, $210,000 for future pain and suffering, and $7,488 in past lost earnings. The nine-woman, three-man panel was majority white but included four Latinos and at least one Asian.

Attorney Ed Zappia, who defended the city, said he could not comment in detail about the verdict because he had not discussed it with city officials.

“Obviously, we’re unhappy with it,” Zappia said.

In a statement Monday, Fire Chief Douglas L. Barry said the department is working on numerous initiatives to improve the disciplinary process and send a message that harassment and discrimination will not be tolerated.

“The Fire Department takes all work environment issues that generated this litigation very seriously and continues to maintain a policy of zero tolerance towards discrimination, harassment or retaliation,” Barry said.

Among the department’s biggest changes is a newly created Professional Standard Division to investigate all complaints involving harassment, discrimination and other improper behavior.

However, Steve Tufts, the head of United Firefighters of Los Angeles, which represents more than 3,000 rank-and-file members, said not much has changed with the department’s disciplinary process.

The award “is not an indictment of the firefighters. It’s an indictment of the management of the Fire Department,” Tufts said.

The city is in settlement negotiations with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which last year found that a “pattern and practice . . . exists for a class of female and black firefighters based on gender and race.”

The discussions could result in settlements to at least four female firefighters who allege that they were discriminated against because of their gender, according to sources familiar with the discussions.

“It’s crazy, isn’t it?” asked Smith, the attorney. “When does it stop?. . . . The taxpayers shouldn’t blame the litigants, it’s not their fault. They’re going in, they can lose a case or they can win a case. . . . People have to get that there is something haywire in the [Fire Department] management.”