TWO FIRE CAPTAINS WHO WERE SUSPENDED after black firefighter Tennie Pierce was fed dog food during a station-house prank were awarded a total of $1.6 million in damages today by a Los Angeles Superior Court jury.
Captains Chris Burton and John Tohill alleged that because they are white they received harsher punishment from Los Angeles Fire Department brass than the Latino firefighter who actually pulled the prank. Jorge Arevalo slipped dog food into Pierce's spaghetti in October of 2004, and received a six-day suspension. Burton and Tohill were suspended for 30 and 24 days respectively. They were not involved in the prank, they alleged, but as the supervisors on duty failed to inform higher-ups.
The two captains filed their reverse-racial-discrimination lawsuit in 2006. Their attorney says they had hoped to settle for $250,000 each, but private attorneys hired by City Administrative Officer Karen Sisson turned the settlement down — and now the city must pay far more.
Pierce sued in 2005, claiming racial harassment among other things. He settled with the city for $1.43 million last year after the Los Angeles City Council's original settlement offer of $2.7 million was vetoed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
The original Pierce settlement offer set off an uproar when photos emerged showing Pierce was a big-time, and politically incorrect, prankster himself, spraying water into the face of one strapped-down firefighter, smearing shaving cream around the groin area of another, and gleefully laughing at a third who was wrapped in a sheet on which hazers had scrawled, “Oy Vey! I'm Gay!”
The two captains and Pierce were all working at Fire Station 5 in October 2004 when the dog-food incident occurred. Tohill admitted during the three-week trial that he bought a can of dog food, but only to give to Pierce as a “Joke Trophy” for Pierce's victories in volleyball and handball games – during which Pierce dubbed himself “Big Dog.” Tohill said there was never a plan to slip the dog food into Pierce's meal. The two captains were later disciplined and transferred because of the incident, which marred their careers.
An attorney for the two captains, Gregory W. Smith, maintained that the incident was not racial and his clients were unaware that Arevalo had cooked up a plan to feed Pierce the dog food.
The city argued that the two captains were there when the prank occurred, and were actively involved in a cover-up of the incident. The city insisted that the suspensions didn't have anything to do with the fact that they are white and Pierce is black.
It was a matter of the city “doing the right thing,” said city-appointed private attorney Edward Zappia. The two captains were disciplined because they didn't prevent the prank and agreed to keep the prank a secret to “avoid responsibility,” he argued.
“[The city] took appropriate action in response to an employee complaint,” argued Zappia. Instead, Zappia insisted, the two captains refused to take responsibility, “blamed everyone but themselves,” and sought revenge against Pierce and Battalion Chief Steve Coleman — who recommended that the two captains be punished for the incident.
“Instead of accepting responsibility they are here to seek revenge,” Zappia argued — unsuccessfully.
The mostly white downtown jury didn't seem swayed by the fact that both men, who are still employed by the LAFD, earn more than $200,000 annually. The two-week trial involved a lot of “he said, he said” conflicting testimony, as well as a cast of characters that included both Pierce and Arevalo.
At the trial, Pierce — noticeably peeved by the proceedings — admitted that he participated in pranks, most notably one two days before the dog-food debacle in which a firefighter was strapped down and doused with A.1. sauce. Pierce, 52, also told the jury that he was at first suspected of being the perpetrator behind “Ratgate,” in which a dead rat was put into another black firefighter's locker.
“Because you pulled a lot of pranks, right?'' Smith asked.
“No, sir, that's not true,'' Pierce replied.
Pierce, dressed in a yellow tie and black suit, told the jury that, on the day of the dog-food incident, he went into the station-house kitchen for dinner and was met at the door by Arevalo, who told him his dinner was on the stove.
Pierce said he was about to take a third bite of the spaghetti when he noticed something was wrong with the meat sauce. He looked up from the table and saw some of his colleagues laughing, stood up and asked if someone put something in his food. No one replied, and Arevalo offered to make him another plate.
He testified that he asked Arevalo again, but that the Latino firefighter didn't reply. Angry, Pierce left the room because “it wasn't a good time for me to see anyone,” he testified.
Surprised by the longtime prankster's reaction, Arevalo and two other firefighters found Pierce, apologized and offered to eat some of the dog food. He told them it wasn't necessary — but said he wouldn't forget about the incident. Later, Pierce claims, he was summoned to the front office to meet up with the two captains, who apologized and told Pierce that they knew dog food was on his plate but he “wasn't supposed to eat it.''
In their reverse-discrimination lawsuit, the two captains say Pierce “emphatically requested that it [the incident] be kept quiet.” Asked by attorney Smith whether he thought the two captains were aware of Arevalo's plans, Pierce replied, “I wasn't concerned about the captains, I wanted to know what was in my spaghetti.''
Pierce also testified that he only called himself “Big Dog'' during the volleyball game and not on a regular basis.
The prank's instigator, Arevalo, testified that he fed Pierce the dog food after he found the can on the counter, but acted alone and on impulse.
One of the more interesting moments came when black paramedic Mark Flot, who worked at Fire Station 5 but was not around for the controversial dinner, testified that he spoke with Pierce later that night. Flot told the jury that he and Pierce both agreed that the incident “didn't have to do with race.”
Flot said he later had a discussion with the captains and was told by them that “we weren't going to tell anyone about what happened.”
“To me, I called it a cover-up,” he testified.
When Pierce was asked about his conversation with Flot, he replied: “I wasn't in my right mind. … I am not going to call [Flot] a liar. I just don't know. I didn't know if it had anything to do with race at that time.”
Smith says his clients were “betrayed” by the fire department. “They looked exhausted because of what they had to go through,” he says. “I could see the strain in their faces.” Both captains plan to retire in a few years.
Advertising disclosure: We may receive compensation for some of the links in our stories. Thank you for supporting LA Weekly and our advertisers.