Firefighters of all genders and races are lining up in record numbers to sue the California cities they work for — including fire departments — thanks to the obscure case of Steve Schifando, an unassuming storekeeper for the Los Angeles Parks and Recreation Department who became dizzy in extremely stressful situations.
Schifando filed a complaint against the city in 1998 alleging that he had been forced to quit after his bosses purposely riled him up during a meeting to discuss changes in his responsibilities.
The city said Schifando had to pursue a lengthy proposed administrative remedy before he could sue. But in 2003, the California Supreme Court ruled that city, county and state employees can behave just like private workers, who can bypass their employer and go straight to a state agency that helps workers to file discrimination claims leading up to lawsuits. The 5-2 Supreme Court ruling made it far, far easier for city workers, such as disgruntled firefighters, to sue.
Whether it was the intent of the court or not, city-worker claims against Los Angeles — and that means taxpayers — have exploded, and the Los Angeles Fire Department has been hit hard with extremely pricey cases. Fire Department harassment and employment lawsuits, which numbered only three in 2002-2003, hit 13 in 2004-2005 and numbered nine last year.
Lawyers, smelling a new source of money, are helping to drive the cash grab. “There are probably five times as many lawyers identifying themselves as employment-rights lawyers now,” says Jeffrey Winikow, an employee-rights attorney. “Now you can see people advertising in the Los Angeles Times, and every type of forum possible, for discrimination and harassment claims.”
Now, municipal workers can get massive damages from the city treasury, money that could instead be used for local services. Says Winikow, “If you're worried about the social landscape, it might not be such a good thing.”
The resulting suits and claims have stirred up almost unbelievable melodramas in L.A.'s 106 fire stations, where men spend endless hours awaiting the fire bell. Pranks and practical jokes are commonplace. In the wake of Schifando, the lawsuits have fractured the decades-old ethos of watching each other's backs.
City Controller Laura Chick's 2006 audit painted a picture of massive discrimination and internal mishandling of the complaints that arose. But she now admits to the Weekly she was unaware of the five-year-old Schifando ruling as a motivator behind lawsuits, saying it “doesn't make me happy” to learn it's easier to “sue directly.”
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo and the Los Angeles City Council seem to have no idea why so many cases are landing before them, rushing to blame various fire officials in what is, in essence, a litigious new trend created by the court ruling.
The most infamous post-Schifando case is that of Tennie Pierce, a black firefighter who sued, claiming racial harassment among other things, after a Latino colleague slipped dog food into his spaghetti. The ill-fated prank was prompted by a volleyball game earlier in the day at which Pierce repeatedly joked “Feed the big dog!” about himself. Last year, L.A. Weekly reported that Pierce had told the much smaller Latino firefighter that he took “dumps” bigger than him.
In November 2006, the City Council agreed to pay Pierce $2.7 million in public funds, but the controversial settlement was scuttled by Villaraigosa after photos emerged showing Pierce gleefully hazing firefighters strapped to chairs and gurneys. In one photo, Pierce is gushing water from a hose into a colleague's face, and in another, he is holding his hands near a colleague's exposed genitals, which have been slathered in shaving cream.
A Weekly investigation found no evidence of a racial component, racial comments or other racial undercurrents leading to the dog-food trick. Yet last September, Delgadillo agreed to pay Pierce $1.43 million in taxpayer funds, with Villaraigosa and City Council members signing off.
Lawsuit awards, settlements and new filings are piling up, a disproportionate number of them by women firefighters:
• Brenda Lee became the biggest winner of 2007, alleging that she was discriminated against because she is black, female and a lesbian. She was awarded $6.2 million last July.
• In June, Susan Spencer, a former L.A. cop and former member of the U.S. Women's Soccer Team, filed a lawsuit claiming she dislocated her shoulder after being drilled relentlessly, then had to get knee surgery. Her lawsuit follows the pattern of other female firefighters: a laundry list of alleged insults and wrongdoing in which colleagues hid her pants, tampered with her breathing apparatus, and threw dice in her face during a board game.
• Gloria Foster last August filed a wrongful-death lawsuit claiming that her 25-year-old daughter, Jaime, was killed in a hazing prank gone awry in 2004. Jaime Foster was crushed after falling from the tailboard of a fire engine as it backed up. Her mother claims the driver began “moving engine 273 backward and forward in a jerking motion,” part of a hazing prank to discourage Foster from “continuing in the fire service.” No hazing was alleged at the time of Jaime Foster's death, and investigations by the Fire Department and LAPD ruled it an accident. It was not until the rash of big lawsuits hit the news that Jaime Foster's mother and an attorney made the allegations.
• Alicia Mathis in 2006 announced she had complained to the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing alleging gender discrimination, a hostile work environment, harassment and retaliation. Her wide-ranging complaint included claims that she was pulled off the female-recruitment project, retaliated against and kissed against her will by a firefighter. She recently filed a complaint — not a lawsuit — with the feds, as did d'Lisa Davies and Elena Mattox.
• In 2006, Ruthie Bernal, a firefighter, won a $320,000 settlement after she claimed that a captain grabbed her groin area.
• Firefighter Heather Bond in 2006 won a $100,000 settlement from the city after her neck was injured as she tried to hoist a ladder, which fell on her.
Men use the Schifando ruling too — but many of their cases arise from controversies involving women. Last spring, Captain Lewis Bressler won $1.73 million after a jury found the department retaliated against him for his defense of black lesbian firefighter Brenda Lee, who had alleged discrimination. Captain Frank Lima was awarded $3.75 million after claiming he was retaliated against for refusing to give preferential treatment to a female firefighter. White captains John Tohill and Chris Burton filed a reverse-discrimination lawsuit — expected to go to trial this year — alleging that they were maltreated after the Pierce dog-food incident. Captain John Cappon filed a lawsuit in 2006 claiming that he was retaliated against by department brass after female firefighter Elena Mattox accused him of drilling her so hard she had to get a hysterectomy.
Nobody knows who will get richest off this year's post-Schifando sweepstakes. What is clear is that 2008 is looking to be as litigious, vicious — and pricey for taxpayers — as 2007.