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Hazing play? In LA, you pay

Link and excerpt:

$1.43 million deal in LAFD-hazing suit
City will pay firefighter tricked into eating dog food
BY BETH BARRETT and KERRY CAVANAUGH, Staff Writers
LA Daily News
Article Last Updated:09/22/2007 12:35:38 AM PDT

Capping a high-profile case that had pitted the mayor against the city attorney, Los Angeles officials agreed on Friday to pay nearly $1.5 million to settle a racial-discrimination lawsuit filed by a black firefighter whose colleagues put dog food in his spaghetti.

Under the deal, the city will pay Tennie Pierce $1.43 million. He also will get $60,000 in back salary, which makes him eligible to receive his 20-year service pension.

With attorney fees and legal expenses, the cost of the case is expected to be about $2.7 million – about the same settlement that had been proposed by City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo and approved by the City Council last year.

But Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa vetoed that deal, and Pierce pressed forward with his lawsuit. The case was set to go to trial in just days.

“Today’s agreement is the best possible outcome for the taxpayers,” Villaraigosa said in a statement. “It reduces the original settlement by nearly half while protecting Angelenos from further liability.”

Negotiated by City Council President Eric Garcetti with Pierce’s lawyers, the settlement bypassed Delgadillo and his office’s outside lawyers – who had incurred about $1.35 million in fees in the case.

Since Villaraigosa’s veto of the initial deal, the mayor and city attorney have been at loggerheads.

Delgadillo and outside counsel had recommended a settlement no lower than $1.9 million, but the mayor had sought a much lower figure.

Still, after Brenda Lee, a black, lesbian firefighter, won $6.2 million in a jury settlement against the city on the grounds of discrimination and retaliation, some had begun to push for settlement talks with Pierce rather than let his lawsuit go to trial.

“I’m very pleased that we have settled this matter to save taxpayer money,” Garcetti said.

“To help Mr. Pierce move on with the next chapter in his life and to get to the real hard work of restoring the reputation of a great department, I’m very pleased to have helped that occur, and it couldn’t have happened without all parties’ willingness to come to an agreement.”

Matt Szabo, a spokesman for the mayor, said if Delgadillo had reached the same deal a year ago, “The city would not have incurred any additional legal costs.”

A spokesman for Delgadillo, citing attorney-client privilege, said the office could not comment on how final settlement negotiations were conducted.

“The city attorney supports the settlement as a fiscally responsible outcome for the city. The city attorney is pleased this matter has been resolved,” spokesman Nick Velasquez said.

Garcetti said he got involved when negotiations appeared stuck and trial was scheduled to begin Monday.

“Being the elected leader of this body and having a great relationship with the mayor, I thought it might be helpful,” Garcetti said.

As part of the deal, Pierce will resign from the Los Angeles Fire Department and drop all claims against the city.

“Mr. Pierce agreed to the settlement because it was in the best interest of his family to put this case behind them,” said his attorney, Genie Harrison.

“He is moving on to the next chapter of his life knowing he made a significant contribution to changing the Los Angeles Fire Department culture for the better.”

Councilman Dennis Zine, the only council member to oppose the initial $2.7 million settlement last year, had pushed for outside counsel to take the case from the city attorney.

On Friday, Zine said he thought the Pierce case should have been decided by a jury.

“He was a well-known prankster,” he said. “I’d have taken it to court.”

After the council agreed to settle last year, several photos emerged that showed Pierce and other firefighters smearing mustard and other liquids on colleagues tied to chairs or gurneys.

The images became talk-radio fodder, and Zine and Councilman Bill Rosendahl tried to get the council to reconsider the settlement deal.

On Friday, Zine also questioned the $1.35 million in fees to outside counsel Jones Day.

Delgadillo’s office noted that those attorney fees will push the total settlement to $2.84 million – a higher price tag than the city would have spent if the council had followed his advice last year.

But sources said talks are under way to try to lower the outside-attorney fees to bring the final figure under $2.7 million.

“I don’t know what they did for that amount of money,” Zine said. “It was absolutely too much. What did they accomplish? You add up what they get and what he gets, and where do you get? I’m not happy with the outcome.”

Jones Day attorney Patricia A. Kinaga declined to comment Friday.

About two weeks ago, amid continuing efforts to negotiate a deal, sources said an agreement of $1.9 million was reached, but the mayor vowed to veto it.

That left matters unresolved and opened the door to Garcetti’s involvement, sources said.

“My concern was the precedent of the (Lee) case and what that portended for this case. I was always concerned about that,” Councilwoman Jan Perry said.

“If it hadn’t been for Eric, we would not be where we are, and given the female firefighter’s case, this is a good outcome.”

Fire Commission President Genethia Hudley-Hayes said she wasn’t prepared to comment on the settlement, but felt Pierce deserved something after what he went through.

“My concern is simply that Tennie Pierce is compensated for the harm done in terms of anyone having to eat dog food, no matter what,” Hudley-Hayes said.

“Whether it was racially motivated or not, the fact that professionals, people he worked with, thought that was a good thing to do, I don’t care what the circumstances were. … It was a terrible thing to happen to him.”

By Hank Nuwer

Hank Nuwer is the Indiana-based author of Broken Pledges: The Deadly Rite of Hazing, High School Hazing, Wrongs of Passage and The Hazing Reader. He has written articles or columns on hazing for the Sunday Times of India, Toronto Globe & Mail, Harper's Magazine, Orlando Sentinel, The Chronicle of Higher Education and the New York Times Sunday Magazine. His new book is Hazing: Destroying Young Lives from Indiana University Press.

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