Firefighter awarded $1.1 million in racial bias suit
A civil court jury Monday returned a $1.1-million verdict against the city of Los Angeles, finding in favor of a black firefighter who said he had been discriminated against during a nearly three-decade career because of his race.
The verdict comes after 16 days of deliberations — and six years after another jury ruled against Jabari S. Jumaane, who alleged a pattern of racial bias, harassment and retaliation in the Los Angeles Fire Department when he worked as a fire inspector. That decision was overturned after an appeals court granted a new trial, agreeing that there had been jury misconduct in the original case.
According to a 2012 report by the city’s office of the independent assessor on Fire Department litigation, Jumaane’s allegation of jury misconduct included a declaration by a juror who “claimed to have witnessed racially motivated misconduct by fellow jurors.”
The retrial jury’s ruling is a blow to a department that has found itself accused of systematic discrimination — particularly against black firefighters — in the past.
“We just received the verdict and are reviewing the decision and assessing all options including grounds for appeal,” said Rob Wilcox, a spokesman for City Atty. Mike Feuer.
Jumaane, who has been with the department for more than 27 years but is no longer an inspector, said he was pleased but not surprised by the jury’s conclusion.
“I think the evidence speaks for itself,” he said. “The evidence beckoned for the verdict the jury found.”
His attorney, Nana Gyamfi, said the verdict was long in coming.
“It’s more than just a sense of gratitude, it’s a sense of vindication,” she said. “As he said during the trial when he was questioned by the defense, all he was looking for was for some reasonable people to take a look at his situation and recognize the injustice within it. And that’s what happened.”
The verdict was a dramatic reversal from the one a jury reached in favor of the city in 2007. At the time, city leaders and fire officials were dealing with long-standing complaints about bias in the department. A year before, the city agreed to pay $2.7 million to Tennie Pierce, a black firefighter who sued for discrimination after colleagues secretly put dog food in his spaghetti dinner during a firehouse meal.
Then Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa vetoed that figure after a political backlash and photos surfaced of Pierce involved in firehouse pranks. The City Council then approved a $1.5-million settlement to avoid a trial.
In his case, Jumaane alleged that he was subjected to racial slurs, jokes and other abuse.
In his lawsuit, Jumaane said his captain falsified performance evaluations under the direction of his battalion chief at the time so that he could be subjected to serious discipline, including suspensions. Lawyers for the city had argued that Jumaane’s disciplinary record was warranted and that his allegations of racial harassment were fabricated.
“We are grateful to the jury for this historic verdict, which clearly indicts the department and the city for its systemic discrimination and retaliation against black fire members, which it has condoned and perpetuated for decades,” Gyamfi said.
Jumaane was also an unsuccessful candidate for a City Council seat in 2011.
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