Posted on Jul 05, 2007
Verdict: $6.2 million, maybe more
Black lesbian firefighter wins discrimination suit
BY EUGENE TONG and KERRY CAVANAUGH, Staff Writers
A Los Angeles firefighter who said she was harassed at work because she is African-American, a woman and a lesbian received a $6.2 million jury award Tuesday in her discrimination case against the city.
The jury ruled in favor of Brenda Lee, 39, of Mission Hills after a two-week trial in Los Angeles Superior Court. It's the largest payout in a string of recent settlements of cases alleging discrimination and retaliation against women and minorities within the Los Angeles Fire Department.
The jury award covers past and future economic and noneconomic damages suffered by Lee, who was assigned to Fire Station 96 in Chatsworth and is now on unpaid leave.
The jury will reconvene Thursday to consider punitive damages against LAFD Capt. Christopher Hare, Lee's former supervisor, which means Lee could be awarded even more money.
Lee's attorneys had offered to settle the case for $4.5 million, but the City Attorney's Office had recommended against the offer, saying Lee had credibility issues with contradicting claims, City Hall sources told the Daily News.
Rob Kitson, an attorney for Lee, declined to comment, saying Superior Court Judge Michael L. Stern has asked lawyers not to discuss the case
until it is over.
City Attorney's Office spokesman Jonathan Diamond said the city "will review its options going forward," and referred questions to private attorneys Rupert Byrdsong and Keith Wyatt, who were hired to represent the city. They did not immediately return calls for comment. Los Angeles Fire Department officials could not be reached for comment.
The verdict is another blow for the city and a fire department trying to recover from what critics say was a firehouse culture of horseplay and permissiveness that sometimes crossed the line into race and gender discrimination.
That criticism, coupled with a scathing audit by City Controller Laura Chick pointing to inconsistent discipline and a tendency to downplay offenses, prompted former LAFD Chief William Bamattre to retire Jan. 1. His successor, interim Chief Douglas Barry, has worked to reform the 3,500-member department.
"It's a huge verdict and it's very alarming to anyone who has a fiduciary responsibility over the city budget," said Councilman Jack Weiss, who heads the City Council's public safety committee.
"The most important thing is to reform the Fire Department. There's new leadership ... Hopefully that will prevent these sorts of lawsuits."
A 12-year LAFD veteran, Lee alleged her superiors made derogatory comments about her and put her through grueling drills without proper safety precautions because of her race and sexual orientation.
She also said her locker was ransacked. Most of the discrimination occurred from 2002 to 2004 while she was assigned to the Chatsworth station.
Defense attorneys said Lee's problems stemmed from lack of responsibility and accountability.
Lee filed her lawsuit in 2005 along with two former Los Angeles firefighters - both white - who also alleged they faced discrimination and were forced to retire partly because of their age.
Lewis Steven Bressler, 68, claimed he was placed in a hostile work environment at Fire Station 96 in retaliation for blowing the whistle on Lee's mistreatment. He won a $1.73 million jury award in April. The third plaintiff, Gary Mellinger, settled with the city for $350,000 last year.
In other cases against the LAFD, a jury last month awarded $3.75 million to Capt. Frank Lima, who claimed he was retaliated against for not giving preferential treatment to a female trainee injured in a drill in 2004.
Meanwhile, the case of Tennie Pierce, a black firefighter who filed a discrimination suit after dog food was slipped into his dinner in what colleagues said was a prank, is headed for trial in September.