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L.A. pays $2.53 million to captains in fire department harassment

The costs of a 2004 firehouse incident in which a black firefighter was fed dog food continues to rise even as the Los Angeles city budget is already battered by recession.

The City Council approved the payment Friday of $2.53 million to two white fire captains, who won a court case alleging the department racially discriminated against them in the punishments they received for the incident.

That figure was almost $900,000 more than the original $1.6 million that a jury awarded the captains in 2008.

The extra costs to the city included $550,000 in fees for the attorney representing Los Angeles fire Capt. Chris Burton and Capt. John Tohill in trial, on appeal and before the California Supreme Court. It also included $380,000 in interest payments on the award and attorneys' fees, at 7% annually, as required by state law, said Greg Smith, the attorney representing Burton and Tohill.

The city also spent additional funds to hire Ed Zappia, a private attorney, to defend the case in civil court, appellate court and to argue it again before the state Supreme Court.

The is being spent for a case "we would have settled for $250,000 before it went to trial," Smith said. "We made numerous efforts to try to get some sort of resolution, but always to deaf ears."

The case stems from an incident at the Westchester firehouse when black firefighter Tennie Pierce was fed dog food in his spaghetti.

It was a prank, firefighters later said, after an earlier volleyball game in which Pierce, playing well, kept saying "feed the Big Dog," referring to the nickname by which he was known.

Tohill bought the can of dog food, intending to put it in front of Pierce in the firehouse as a joke, Smith said. A Latino firefighter later cooked the dog food into the spaghetti and fed it to Pierce unbeknowns to anyone else until later, Smith said.

The Latino firefighter was suspended for four days. Tohill and Burton were suspended for a month. Burton has since retired; Tohill is retiring soon, Smith said.

The punishments ended their opportunities for promotions, Smith said. "Their authority was completely undermined because they were labeled racist," he said.

The Council voted to settle a discrimination lawsuit brought by Pierce out of court. At first they awarded him $2.7 million. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa vetoed that figure after fierce political reaction to the award and photos surfaced of Pierce involved in firehouse pranks. The council later approved a $1.5-million settlement to avoid trial. The city spent an additional $1.3 million on legal fees in the Pierce case.

"My understanding is that the city is in the mode of they won't settle cases," Smith said. "If you won't settle cases, you're always going to have the possibility of large hits."

Another discrimination case Smith brought before the city involved Los Angeles police officer Robert Hill. Hill was awarded $3.1 million in September 2008 in a case Smith claims the city could have settled out of court for much less.

The city continues to fight it on appeal, while interest payments on the award amount to $1,000 a day, Smith said.

-- Sam Quinones

Comments () | Archives (20)

Notwithstanding the merits of the case, civil attorneys have taken care of themselves quite well in these types of cases, haven't they?

The civil attorneys representing the firefighters wouldn't be doing so well if the Legislature, instead of outlawing plastic bags and finding new things to spend money on, ended the law mandating market rate fees to prevailing Plaintiffs. Or political correctness run amock wasn't dictating hiring, firing, promotions and lawsuits in the city. $1.5 million for the dogfood prank? I'll eat some dogfood for a mere million.

Notwithstanding the merits of the case, civil attorneys have taken care of themselves quite well in these types of cases, haven't they?
No they have not-they have taken care of the business that needed to be taken care of.

How many government yahoo's will lost their job over this $5 million "prank"???? None, that's how many. A $5 million prank and no one is canned, unreal, unbelieveable.

If this was the real world eveyrone involved would have been canned at day 1, but the clown that cooked the dog food and fed it to a co-worker gets a whopping 4 day suspension????? Only in government.

The city managers are not bright, and inept. This is one of the biggest reasons why the city is having financial problems. We have paid too much money out for LAPD as well. LAPD has cost the city more money than any other department.

As much as I believe that discrimination victims like Pierce as well as Jaycee Duggard deserve monetary compensation from the city, millions of dollars could have been saved if for one, the complaint was handled better and employees did their job well and avoided harassment and discrimination. Also, even if there was a lawsuit, it should have been settled at a reasonable price at the early stage and of course, further appeals would only serve to increase further costs and attorney's fees as the case would drag on instead of getting resolved.

I can't say this "case" shocks my sensibilities because political correctness jumped the shark here a long....long... time ago....

and to Pierce, maybe you can buy some testosterone with that 1.5 Million....just a thought.

I think our city council and the city attorney have committed a grave injustice to their constituents. They managed to bargain their way into a even larger settlement. And Mufon sees this as an issue with civil attorneys. Why? Because they work harder for their clients than our public representatives? Seems the real problem is the quality of lawyering in the city attorney's office and the politicing of the council members.

So this is where my money is going??

The process is to ensure public employees are screen for position. Planks are not part of the work place, in this case a public job.

The process is to ensure public employees are screen for position. Planks are not part of the work place, in this case a public job.

With the lack of funding from the State, what a waste of effort. Cut the city losses, hire better Capts.

Oh my god ... does it ever end????

the times forgot to blame the probation dept!

ok guess that's where part of my parking ticket paymentS go to

Here are the true costs of political correctness. What a sad and sorry joke on the taxpayers of Los Angeles. The lesson from this is that in order to avoid liability, the workplace needs to be a stale, antiseptic environment, devoid of all humor and spontaneity. Minorities should be looked upon as potential lottery ticket winners waiting to be offended, with their fingers poised over the speed dial button to the ACLU. The filthy lawyers get paid again.

I remember back in 2007 when Tennie Pierce's case first made the news. I asked Captain David Moore (Venice station) what he thought of the case and he commented "it wasn't really his turn, but you have to go when the opportunity presents itself."

I wonder if David ever got his turn?

Without a doubt truly the most overpaid and worthless of all govt. employees - fire fighters.

I'm amazed the African-American got hired considering the nepotism this 'profession' is famous for throughout the USA. What cracks me up is when one of their 'brothers' dies it's like a state funeral - hey it's your job.

The only fire dept. worth a damn is FDNY because they went 'into' the WTC on 9/11 knowing full well they weren't coming back. Try that with the famous LAFD who watched the Pacific Palisades burn some 20+ years ago from Sunset Blvd. while houses burned but refused to go into the fire until their 'captains' (i.e. uncles, fathers and cousins) told them to.

BTW I am no fan of New York - I loath their assumption of control of our nation but LAFD is an affirmative action rigged deck for the laziest of all civil servants .

'Hey let's block traffic with our hook and ladder while we follow that Gerber ambulance... wow listen to my siren....what a man I am and note the overtime I'm getting along with Playgirl wanting to see my pecs. Fireman! Yeah put out that fire fireman...you lazy corrupt clown...- mustache rides for the firemen aren't we all blessed?'

Just declare the City bankrupt. Why delay the inevitable!

Accountability vs Civil Service "Protections" = Elusive

I love spaghetti with Alpo


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