Firemen’s Dog Food Prank Could Cost City Millions

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A black LA firefighter filed a racial discrimination suit after his coworkers “secretly laced his spaghetti with dog food.”

He said in court documents that the dog food incident “was part of a pattern of incidents” at the fire station “that were done to dehumanize black men.”

But “firefighters called it a prank and city lawyers said the incident wasn’t racially motivated.”

The firefighter’s legal claims in state court are for “racial harassment, emotional distress, retaliation and failure to investigate.”

A few weeks ago, a judge denied the city’s motion to dismiss the firefighter’s race discrimination claim (perhaps technically more properly referred to as a motion for summary judgment?)

The firefighter “said the incident was sparked after a volleyball game in which he’d chided colleagues, ‘You guys keep feeding the Big Dog,’ which was his nickname.”

The city’s attorneys, “in arguing for dismissal – said a city inquiry into the incident was effective and resulted in severe discipline for two of the three fire personnel involved and a halt to alleged discriminatory activities.”

The parties have been trying to negotiate a settlement to this race discrimination lawsuit for almost a year. Last November, the city council attempted to settle for $2.7 million, but the mayor vetoed the deal as too costly after photos emerged in the media of the firefighter joining others in fire station pranks. “Some council members . . . believe that the dog food incident was just an extension of those pranks and didn’t involve racism.”

Trial starts Sept. 24,and the city’s lawyers warned that a jury could hit the city with a huge judgment.

“The council spent two hours debating a last-minute settlement offer behind closed doors, the Los Angeles Times reported. [The firefighter's] attorneys have reportedly indicated a willingness to settle for $3.1 million.”

The Mayor “said any deal above $1 million would be unacceptable, [and] the council decided to talk about it again on Sept. 18.”

“Also on Wednesday, the council agreed to settle an unrelated lawsuit for $2 million. In that case, [a woman] sued the city after she was struck by a bus in a crosswalk, [alleging] . . . that the city improperly installed a traffic signal so that it faced the wrong direction, causing the accident.”

A few quick comments:

Yes, a verdict could be in the millions. That’s true of about any employment discrimination case. But its not a reason to settle a single-plaintiff discrimination case for 7 figures — unless the facts are extremely bad — particularly where the employee was not terminated.

It looks to me like the firefighter is playing games and not negotiating seriously to the extent he is now demanding more than he did a year ago. I know, his attorneys put in a lot more hours over that year, but in my experience that fact is unpersuasive, because defense attorneys have put in as much or more — and sent their client monthly bills — so the fees weigh equally on both sides of the equation. The employer can argue it should pay less because money that could have gone to settlement went to the lawyers instead.

There must be a lot more to this than the one dog food incident, gross as it is. If there is anything to the allegation of a “pattern of incidents,” the case would be much stronger. If this is true, the media reports are typical oversimplifications of complex lawsuits, choosing to publicize only the most sensational allegation. What is the evidence of emotional distress? Of retaliation? “Enquiring minds want to know” . . . .

The nature of the city’s response to the firefighter’s racial harassment complaint should be very important, if not determinative. As with sexual harassment, the employer’s responsibility is generally for its own conduct in managing the workplace, not the actions of employees per se.

His participation in other pranks, depending on their nature, could really hurt him by undermining his claim to have been singled out racially.

This is different than the typical racial harassment case in that the incident is not racial on its face (they usually involve blatantly racist slurs, jokes, graffiti, etc.) This makes his case less valuable in terms of jury appeal (though the “gag factor” here might make up for it). However, as with sexual harassment, if he was subjected to harassment because of his race, which could be shown by evidence white firefighters were not subjected to such pranks or hazing, absence of explicitly racist comments would not matter, legally.

Would you walk in front of a bus for $2 million? I sure wouldn’t.

Would you eat dogfood in your spaghetti — once — for $3.1 million? I’m not a “rich lawyer,” and I just might . . . .

That comparison is most telling! I’m 100% with the mayor.

Sources:

UPDATE: The parties ended up settling for $1.43 million the day before.

Photo credits: spaghetti by 46137 and dogfood by dchadwick, via flickr

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2 Comments

  1. Great blog! I had forgotten bout this case. This is the type of case that give lawyers a bad name. It’s bad enough when an unwarranted lawsuit hurts an undeserving company. But it’s even worse when it worse means a city will have fewer dollars for social services.

  2. In order to prevent incidents like this from happening in the future, it is essential that everyone participate in the proper sexual harassment training. This could be online or at the workplace.

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