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Patrick DeBlase
Patrick DeBlase
Attorney •

Fire Dept. Pays $2.7 Million to Settle Dog Food Dinner Discrimination Case

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African American man fed dog food by fellow firefighters in the Fire Department obtains racial discrimination settlement.

Discrimination is alive and well. Through the outstanding work of a plaintiffs’ attorney in Los Angeles, racial discrimination in the Los Angeles Fire Department was exposed and those responsible brought to justice. Two firefighters purchased and mixed dog food into firefighter Tennie Pierce’s spaghetti dinner one night while all three were on duty. A third firefighter, a captain, knew about the dog food dinner and didn’t warn Pierce about it. Pierce, who is African American, took a bite of the spaghetti and he noticed the other firefighters laughing and making noises. Pierce demanded to know why they were laughing and what they did to his food but the others refused to say anything. Pierce left the room humiliated.

The Fire Department settled this case last week for what some consider an excessive amount. All personal injury settlements such as this must be approved by the City Council. The one vote against this settlement came from councilman Dennis Zine who told the Los Angeles Times that the amount is:

outrageous for something that caused no serious injury, no permanent harm…. That’s not to say it was right, not to justify what they did. But $2.7 million?…. I don’t think it was a racial deal. It was a prank that turned sour, but did it go bad to the point that he’s harmed for life? That it should cost the taxpayers $2.7 million?

Here’s why the amount is not outrageous. What happened here was a big deal. Pierce’s attorney hired a history and sociology professor from U.C. Santa Cruz who analyzed Fire Dept. documents to shed light upon what this purported prank really meant.

The association of a black man and dog food resonates with the deep historical roots of slavery and the corresponding dehumanization,” said sociologist David Wellman, co-author of “Whitewashing Race: Colorblind Policies in a Color Conscious America.

It’s not just silly stuff. It’s racially motivated…. The organization labels it as macho, ‘boys will be boys’ behavior. I think it’s more about keeping blacks out by making their lives so miserable that they don’t want to stay.

It’s 2006. Pranks are pranks, but racism is racism. One is ok, the other is not. The plaintiff in this case likely didn’t suffer any physical injury from ingesting dog food. However, to be dehumanized and degraded by his colleagues all because of his skin color causes the most harm of all – one’s rightful and equal place in a civilized society. This settlement sends a message that is loud and clear. Discrimination is not welcome here. But when it happens justice will not be discounted and the full measure of the harm wrought will be compensated.