Biting Back

As a covered entity under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the City of Los Angeles does not discriminate on the basis of disability and, upon request, will provide reasonable accommodations to ensure equal access to its programs, services, and activities . . .

Dan Knapp, L.A.’s former Department of Animal Services general manager, who became the first city department head to be fired by Mayor James Hahn, might disagree with that statement, which appears on all city commission agendas. Knapp has filed a claim for more than $800,000 in lost wages and benefits and alleges that his former employers repeatedly discriminated against him because of a disability: frequent epileptic seizures.

”Hahn‘s . . . administration began a continuing course of conduct against and harassment of Mr. Knapp because of his disability that . . . created a hostile work environment,’‘ said the claim filed this month by South Pasadena attorney Dale L. Gronemeier. Gronemeier asserts that the alleged hostility toward Knapp (who now works in Ohio) began even earlier, under the administration of Mayor Dick Riordan, who hired Knapp in 1998. The initial friction here was said to be between Knapp and the then-president of the city Board of Animal Regulation Commission, Al Avila, who did not return the Weekly’s phone calls. The claim contends that Avila refused to allow Knapp to adjust his work hours and “refused to deal directly with Knapp.” Regardless, Knapp received the city‘s top merit pay raise of 5 percent after his official 2000 evaluation.

This evaluation did not prevent the new mayor’s firing Knapp with a single-paragraph letter less than four months after taking office last year. Hahn -- who has more recently faced criticism for opining that Police Chief Bernie Parks should not get another term -- has offered no explanation for his action. Representatives of Hahn‘s office declined to comment on the claim.

Knapp’s $128,754-per-year appointment to the traditionally contentious animal-services department originally was hailed by many animal activists as a positive one, due to Knapp‘s acclaimed record of reforming Sonoma County’s humane society. Although he occasionally clashed with other city officials, he lasted as L.A. animal-regulation general manager nearly as long as did all three of his immediate predecessors put together. He also made well-publicized improvements to the city‘s shelters and spay-and-neutering procedures, and enforced new city laws that greatly raised the license cost for unneutered animals.

He was popular in the animal-lover community, and more than doubled the roster of volunteer workers in city shelters. His biggest triumph, however, may have been his successful promotion of Proposition F, the $154 million animal-regulation bond measure voters overwhelmingly approved in 2000, which provided money to build new shelters and improve old ones.

According to the claim, Knapp’s chronic epileptic-seizure disorder made necessary special working hours and conditions, which personnel and mayoral officials often denied him. Knapp also needed occasional medical leaves, including one for carpal-tunnel surgery. Increasingly, the claim states, the demands of his position led to more seizures as well as stress symptoms and clinical depression. Last April, according to the claim, then-Councilwoman Rita Walters‘ grilling of the general manager on allegations involving downtown stray-dog problems during the 2000 Democratic National Convention apparently led to a seizure and manifestation of Knapp’s other symptoms that put him on sick leave for several weeks. After Hahn‘s July inauguration, the indications of mayoral hostility included an order that Knapp not be allowed to ride in a city car.

Gronemeier further said that unless the claim is settled, he plans to file an action against the city under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act and the federal Americans With Disabilities Act, contending that the city “continued to discriminate” and that Knapp’s firing itself constituted discrimination against someone with disabilities.

Gronemeier said that he based Knapp‘s fiscal claim on income lost by his firing. “Our projections are based on his new job, earning [$38,754] less per year than he did previously.’‘ Knapp now heads the Capital Area Humane Society of Northwest Columbus, Ohio. Knapp makes $90,000 per year, and over his career, Gronemeier projects lost income and benefits to add up to $852,000. The attorney also added that compensation would be sought for the damages to Knapp’s professional reputation, noting that local Ohio media had already reported his firing in Los Angeles. One close observer suggested that if his termination were deemed unlawful in court, Knapp might even get his old job back.

Some of Knapp‘s admirers in the regional ”humane community“ say they’d be happy if he did return to Los Angeles. ”I miss Dan terribly,“ said animal activist Michael Bell. ”He left a great open gap in communications [between the commission] and the humane community and the general public.‘’

But one of Knapp‘s original City Hall supporters said that he now believes Knapp is not equal to the demands of his former post. “He is the sweetest, the nicest guy in the whole world,’‘ the admirer said. ”But I now think that this incredibly difficult job is simply too much for him.“

As for what the future holds, Al Rosenblum, who replaced Avila as board president, said he has not been consulted on the search for Knapp’s replacement. Said Rosenblum, ”I was told this was the mayor‘s prerogative [just as it was] when Dan was fired.“


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