AS A SEPTEMBER COURT DATE approaches for black firefighter Tennie Pierce, who was fed dog food by his co-workers at Los Angeles city Fire Station 5, new filings have emerged pitting the city in a complex and potentially costly battle against Pierce’s attorney, Genie Harrison.
Although Pierce is the client, another person at the center of this case is Harrison, a high-powered lawyer specializing in suing local governments, who appeared before Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Mark V. Mooney on June 4 in a crisp green and gray suit and sporting a short brown bob. She seeks to add a “retaliation” claim to Pierce’s November 2005 lawsuit. His suit alleged racial harassment and intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress by his fellow firefighters when a Latino crewmember pulled a prank, feeding Pierce spaghetti laced with dog food.
A lot is riding on Harrison’s success: She is rolling out a series of similar claims by other firefighters aimed at reaping several million dollars from Los Angeles city coffers — and if she succeeds it will mean a lucrative take of roughly one-third for Harrison and her firm.
In response, Los Angeles City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo is trying to get Harrison’s claims of firefighter retaliation dismissed, pointing out that criticism of Pierce by firefighters — who roundly attacked Delgadillo’s $2.7 million settlement offer to Pierce last fall — was not retaliation. Rather, Delgadillo argues, it was free speech uttered by firefighters furious that Pierce, a bigtime hazer himself, was seeking millions for being hazed.
The Pierce dog-food debacle made headlines last fall when the City Council rubber-stamped Delgadillo’s recommended settlement — a fire department record. The City Council, hoping to avoid an uncomfortable legal fight involving a race-based allegation, instead landed in a much worse firestorm after voting, 11-1, in record time, to hand Pierce a record-high award. Only Councilman Dennis Zine voted against it.
KFI-AM 640 hosts John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou fanned public anger over the council’s vote, posting online photos of Pierce engaged in hazing — photos that all 15 City Council members had seen but most chose to ignore. Then, other controversial photos of Pierce emerged — one showing him grinning over a firefighter who had been strapped down and wrapped in a sheet with “Oy Vey! I’m Gay” scrawled across it.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa vetoed Delgadillo’s huge settlement offer, his first veto of the City Council. Then, after an emotional public plea by Pierce on November 28, and a public show of support for him from big-name Los Angeles black leaders, the council upheld the mayor’s veto.
Pierce’s emotional speech to a packed City Council chambers, at which he claimed that the crew who tricked him into eating dog food was “nine white members,” turned out to be blatantly false — the crew was a mix of races and ethnicities, as reported by the L.A. Weekly in “What Really Happened at Fire Station 5?” (March 16–22). The Weekly also found that a taunting incident cited by Pierce was actually led by a black firefighter and that Pierce took part in a hazing incident with his fellow firefighters at Station 5 two days before the dog-food debacle.
Stung by the overturning of what had seemed to be a slam-dunk $2.7 million settlement, Harrison has, since the beginning of the year, made two moves to expand her lawsuit, focusing heavily on what happened to Pierce after the dog-food prank. In papers filed in January she alleges that firefighters made “defamatory and degrading comments” about Pierce to reporters, and sent embarrassing photos of him to the media.
But city-hired law firm Jones Day accused Harrison of wrongly trying to claim that routine media coverage of the dog-food prank, and the free speech of angry firefighters dumping on Pierce, constitutes “retaliation.”
Jones Day attorney Patricia Kinaga says Harrison is now more focused on what firefighters said directly to Pierce in the months after the prank, and no longer heavily focusing on the media coverage following Villaraigosa’s veto — because Harrison can’t sue the city over firefighters talking to reporters, which is protected speech. “Before her amended lawsuit, her focus was on what people were saying to the press,” says Kinaga, “and it was ripe” for a legal challenge. “You are criticizing someone for expressing their First Amendment speech.”
In Superior Court on June 4, Harrison’s new documents indeed downplayed her earlier strategy. Her filings discussed the “course of retaliation and retaliatory harassment” after the prank, and made light of “the relatively small amount of [protected] speech identified” by the city.
In keeping with the new “retaliation” claims, Pierce alleges that he was confronted at least a dozen times by firefighters who told him that his lawsuit was “bullshit.” On one occasion, he says, during a call to a fire in a commercial building, he was taunted by crew members who called him “dog-food boy.”
Harrison now faces the challenge of convincing a potential jury pool that Pierce is a sympathetic figure. As found by the Weekly, by the time Pierce appeared before the City Council with black leaders last fall, he had been paid the equivalent of a full-time salary for about two years — but worked less than 40 days. Just two weeks after the dog-food prank, Pierce sprained his back when he slipped on some stairs at LAX during a call. He took a paid two-and-a-half-month injury leave — the first of a lengthy series of paid sick leaves and stress leaves.
During one of Pierce’s brief returns to work at Station 12 in Highland Park, he says he became a target of harassing telephone calls on the “grapevine” — the department’s internal phone system. A month later, he says he was criticized so relentlessly by firefighters at the Frank Hotchkin Memorial Training Center that he decided against taking classes that would have helped him seek a promotion.
In addition, Pierce is now claiming new racial incidents at Fire Station 5 not mentioned in his original complaint. He now claims that weeks before the dog-food incident, George Arevalo, the Latino firefighter who tricked Pierce into eating dog-food-laced spaghetti, asked a black firefighter if “so many blacks die of heart attacks because you eat so much fried chicken?”
Pierce’s first complaint attempted to show a pattern of racial incidents, but the Weekly showed that several of his examples did not appear to be race based at all.
One incident in 2003, known as Ratgate, involved a black firefighter — identified as Gary Alexander — who found a dead rat in his locker. The Weekly learned that a rat was placed in Alexander’s locker because he broke an unwritten rule by ratting on a firefighter who had sustained an injury during hazing. Pierce’s lawsuit failed to mention that Alexander, now a captain, never considered the incident racially motivated.
After the Weekly investigation, Pierce amended his statement, saying that he did not know whether Ratgate was racial.
One of his more interesting new claims is that he was shunned by his co-workers for speaking out about the dog-food incident. Such “shunning,” he alleges, “carries far more sinister and serious implications in the fire service than in other workplaces,” and caused him to fear for his safety and to check his equipment throughout his shift.
Harrison’s lawsuit says, “He worried constantly that someone would sabotage his equipment, as he had heard members had done to others in years past” — but cites no examples of sabotage incidents.
The city rebutted most of Pierce’s claims, saying he often lacks witnesses to these alleged incidents — besides Pierce himself.
A lot is riding on the Pierce case, for both the city and Harrison. If the case goes south for the city, it could cost taxpayers millions and make Villaraigosa look impotent. If Harrison loses on the widely reported Pierce case, it could taint the potential jury pool in Harrison’s other upcoming cases — which has so far been very receptive to her law firm claims.
In March, Harrison’s law firm secured firefighter Lewis Bressler a jury award of $1.75 million. Bressler, a Jehovah’s Witness, claimed he was subjected to age and religious discrimination, retaliated against, and then pushed into retirement for backing Brenda Lee, a black lesbian firefighter — who also happens to be represented in a lucrative lawsuit by Harrison.
Next, Harrison is rolling out her claim for Lee, who rejected a staggering $2.5 million offer from Delgadillo, who some private attorneys have criticized for caving on lawsuits against the city. Lee’s trial is set for June 18. Pierce’s trial is set for September 24.