AN ETHNICALLY MIXED bag of downtown jurors on Tuesday awarded a record — and huge — $6.2 million in economic damages alone to 39-year-old firefighter Brenda Lee, agreeing that she was harassed and tormented by her supervisors because she is black and a lesbian. The jury has yet to award punitive damages to Lee.
The two-and-a-half-week trial pitted Lee — who was accused of being a sometimes-violent malcontent so unpleasant that other firefighters avoided her — against her supervisor, Christopher J. Hare, an alleged loudmouth who she claims spouted off racial slurs and sexist diatribes as easily as a morning hello.
Hare was Lee’s captain at Station 96 in Chatsworth between 2002 and 2004. In the final days of the trial, the two former colleagues sat quietly, almost side by side, with faces aimed straight ahead, as a parade of firefighters testified — and slung arrows at both of them.
There was a lot at stake for both the City Attorney’s Office and Lee’s attorney, Genie Harrison, who has rolled out a series of similar claims by other firefighters aimed at reaping several million dollars from Los Angeles city coffers. Harrison's success means a lucrative take of roughly one-third for her and her firm, and taxpayers now face the prospect of doling out millions.
Last year, Brenda Lee rejected a staggering $2.5 million settlement offer from City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo. She left the Fire Department shortly after filing her lawsuit in 2005, in the wake of a city psychologist’s recommendation that she no longer be allowed to fight fires.
This is a major blow for Delgadillo, who was widely criticized for his $2.7 million settlement offer last year to firefighter Tennie Pierce, who was fed dog food as part of a prank by his colleagues — and was later found to be a major prankster himself. (Delgadillo is also under investigation by the California State Bar Association for unrelated ethical breaches.)
In closing arguments on Monday, Harrison said the city repeatedly failed to spot the abuse and harassment of Lee during her 12 years as a firefighter. When Lee spoke up, “she became the enemy,” to her superiors, said Harrison. She said the department would often launch largely meaningless investigations, trying to cover up the problems Lee raised — and put out the “Brenda Lee emergency.”
Turning to the jury, Harrison beseeched them, saying, “Ms. Lee is crying for your help . . . All she wanted to be was a firefighter. She never will be again.”
However, defense attorney W. Keith Wyatt told the jury that because life and limb are at risk, the Fire Department must operate like a military organization with “no room for disobedience.” Yet when Lee broke rules — and was reprimanded — she insisted on seeing that as being “picked on” and “mistreated” due to her race and sexual orientation. Wyatt argued that her frequent pouting and her view that the rules did not apply to her meant Lee was “not qualified to work as a firefighter.”
Wyatt’s closing arguments on July 2 followed last week’s testimony by Dr. Shirley St. Peter, a city mental-health expert, who said that Lee, after sometimes being physically aggressive toward co-workers, denied her behavior, insisting that “these things didn’t happen.” (In one instance, when Lee struck another firefighter in the face at the scene of a fire in Simi Valley, Lee later argued that her captain had exaggerated the gravity of her behavior.)
St. Peter testified that she recommended Lee be removed from the field and assigned a desk job after several issues arose, including another alleged incident, in which Lee repeatedly and aggressively bumped up against a rookie. Lee denied the allegations and blamed her supervisors for wanting to “get to her,” St. Peter said.
HARRISON’S LAW FIRM HAS SCORED big in the past against Delgadillo, and it has cost taxpayers a bundle. In March, a jury awarded $1.75 million to firefighter Lewis Bressler, a Jehovah’s Witness who claimed that he was subjected to age and religious discrimination, retaliated against, and then pushed into retirement for backing Brenda Lee when they worked together at the same troubled Chatsworth station.
But Harrison hasn’t been as successful in painting her client Pierce as a victim of racial harassment and retaliation in a case that goes to trial in September. The Pierce dog-food debacle made headlines last fall when the City Council rubber-stamped Delgadillo’s recommended settlement — a Fire Department record. KFI-AM 640 hosts John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou fanned public anger over the council’s vote, posting online photos of Pierce gleefully engaged in hazing other firefighters.
Press accounts revealed that the City Attorney’s Office was aware of the photos, but Delgadillo recommended the huge settlement for Pierce anyway. After a public outcry against the $2.7 million payout, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa vetoed Delgadillo’s offer — his first veto of the City Council since his election in 2005. After that controversy, the City Council hired the private law firm Jones Day to represent the city.
Delgadillo’s performance in defending the city against the steady stream of firefighter lawsuits is mixed. It took just a day and a half for a jury to award Captain Frank Lima $3.75 million after he claimed he was retaliated against by the Fire Department for refusing to give preferential treatment to female recruits.
But in contrast, a jury didn’t buy Jabari S. Jumaane’s claims that he was insulted, transferred and suspended after condemning racism within the Fire Department. He sued the city in April 2003 and wanted a record $7.5 million in damages — but the jury ruled against him in just one day. Neither Lima nor Jumaane was represented by Harrison’s firm.
The petite and sometimes tough-talking attorney successfully portrayed Lee as a sympathetic figure who was forced from her surprisingly lucrative $136,000-a-year firefighting job by Hare and colleagues, allegedly because they were threatened by her gay lifestyle.
SOME COURT WATCHERS thought Harrison stumbled badly in her opening statements — describing Brenda Lee as a pauper who was forced from her high-end salaried job and then made a mere $11,000 last year. Harrison told the jury that to make ends meet, Lee even rummaged through trash cans to find recyclable items. But in testimony last week, Lee admitted that, contrary to Harrison’s opening remarks about her dumpster diving, she’s been getting about $7,000 a month from the Los Angeles Firemen’s Relief Association — or roughly $82,000 a year — since she took a leave from her firefighting job.
Harrison tried to bar city lawyers from asking Lee, in front of the jury, about the fact that she’s not struggling to earn money through recycling. But Judge Michael L. Stern denied Harrison’s motion — and the jury listened intently to Lee’s explanation of her current $7,000-a-month income. The discrepancy over her financial situation in the end didn't seem to bother the jury.
The crux of Lee’s claim is that she was constantly under attack by colleagues and supervisors who forced her to repeatedly perform strenuous exercises, ransacked her locker twice and placed urine in her mouthwash. Hare is a key figure in her allegations, and she says Hare subjected her to verbal assaults and admitted to being a “redneck” and “proud of it.”
Lee claims that Hare, her supervisor, called his personal truck “Mighty Whitey,” referred to women as whores and sluts, and derided a Middle Eastern man as a “wraphead.” According to Lee’s testimony, when a gay man who got medical help from firefighters later died, Hare said, “That’s one less faggot in the world.”
On the defense side, however, her former colleagues testified that Lee lacked responsibility and accountability on the job, and, in one incident that figures prominently in the defense strategy, slapped another firefighter in the face after a brushfire. Firefighters who have worked with Lee testified that she harbored plans to file a lawsuit against the Fire Department as far back as 2003. One firefighter testified that Lee was so disagreeable on the job that when he heard she was being deployed to his station, he considered transferring to another location to avoid her.
The trial revealed unflattering characters on both sides, but Delgadillo’s strategy fell flat with the jury.