By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Amid swirling rumors that City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo is hoping to settle the lawsuit filed by black firefighter Tennie Pierce, new court filings have emerged that have once again pitted the 51-year-old Cerritos resident against his former Los Angeles Fire Department colleagues.
Pierce filed a lawsuit in 2005 alleging that he was fed dog food by his co-workers at Los Angeles city Fire Station 5 as part of a racially motivated prank. Last fall, the city council agreed to pay Pierce $2.7 million in public funds, but the controversial settlement was scuttled after photos emerged showing Pierce spraying water into the face of one strapped-down firefighter, smearing shaving cream around the groin area of another strapped-down firefighter, and gleefully laughing at a firefighter who had been wrapped in a bed sheet on which the hazers had scrawled, “Oy Vey! I’m Gay!”
A three-month investigation by the L.A. Weekly (read “What Really Happened at Fire Station 5?,” March 16–22) showed that race was not part of the dog-food incident, and, instead, that on the day of the prank against him Pierce had good-naturedly harangued a firefighter who decided to lace Pierce’s spaghetti with dog food as a joke.
Last week, the City Attorney’s office sent a letter to members of the city council, the city Claims Board and the council’s Budget and Finance Committee, asking to meet in closed session to discuss a settlement with Pierce’s attorney Genie Harrison. The case is scheduled to go to trial September 24.
The settlement discussion is scheduled for today’s Budget and Finance Committee, chaired by City Council member Bernard Parks, who, along with two other black council members, Jan Perry and Herb Wesson, strongly favors settling the Pierce case and is rumored to be lobbying other council members to settle. A potential settlement deal may go before city council for a vote as early as Wednesday.
However, possibly blurring the issue are new photos that have allegedly emerged showing Pierce engaged in more hazing at one of his former posts, Station 61. If even more hazing photos emerge, it might be harder for the city attorney’s office to convince council members to forgo trial.
In an e-mail to the Weekly, Delgadillo’s director of communications, Nick Velasquez, declined to discuss the legal matter, responding that it is “the policy of this office not to comment on active litigation due to the potential for violation of attorney-client privilege confidentiality.”
The mayor’s office and council member Parks could not be reached for comment.
Smith, who originally voted to settle with Pierce but changed his vote after photos of Pierce hazing came to light, says through spokesperson Matt Meyerhoff that he “has not changed his position since the last vote.” Smith sits on the city’s Budget and Finance Committee along with council members Parks, Wendy Greuel, José Huizar and Bill Rosendahl.
Perry, who voted twice to settle, cryptically says, “I have not been briefed in any matter to indicate that I should change my position.” Wesson predicted that the case would proceed to trial, but said he still favors settling with Pierce.
“The city attorney already admitted we couldn’t win this case,” Wesson insists. “They basically said this is a loser. I don’t want to pay more than what we could have settled for before. But once it goes to court it is in the hands of a jury.”
Zine, in contrast, says, “We sent a message, the mayor sent a message. Why would the city attorney backpedal now? I can’t see this case going anywhere but trial . . . The truth of the matter is Pierce is a prankster and a hazer and doesn’t deserve anything on this case. If Tennie got the $2.7 settlement it would have been a huge miscarriage of justice, obviously in the mind of the mayor too.”
Delgadillo’s office might be motivated, however, by the city’s recent abysmal record in court against firefighters who sue for huge amounts of money. Last month, a jury awarded $6.2 million — the largest in fire department history — to black lesbian firefighter Brenda Lee. The jury believed Lee’s claims of retaliation on the job, even though testimony showed she was a belligerent worker who got into physical altercations with other firefighters. (Lee, who is also represented by Genie Harrison, rejected a $2.5 million offer from Delgadillo last year).
And last spring, Harrison’s law firm won firefighter Lewis Bressler a jury award of $1.73 million based on Bressler’s claim that he was retaliated against and pushed into retirement for backing Lee in her various disputes with her superiors. Moreover, on June 7, LAFD Capt. Frank Lima won $3.75 million after a jury found he was retaliated against by his superiors for refusing to give preferential treatment to female firefighter recruits.
“Many attorneys are afraid to put their case in the hands of 12 strangers,” says David Duchrow, incoming new chair at the California Employment Lawyers Association, a group of attorneys who represent workers in suits against government employers and other employers. “It is a huge risk for both sides.”