L.A. Loses Appeal, Gardener May Receive $4M

The city of Los Angeles may have to pay a former park groundskeeper more than $4 million after a state appeal court last week affirmed a verdict for racial and disability discrimination.

James Duffy, a mentally disabled white gardener, sued after his Latino supervisor harassed him, assigned him to inferior jobs and told him, “I hate white people,” according to the judges’ decision.

A three-judge panel from the Second District Court of Appeal rejected the city’s arguments Friday. City officials have until the end of August to decide if they are going to request the state Supreme Court review the case or just pay the judgment.

This discrimination case is “rare” not only because the plaintiff is white, but because of direct evidence of racial discrimination, said Lisa Klerman, clinical associate professor of law at USC. Usually, discrimination allegations are decided based on “who is more believable,” she said.

“We were obviously happy, but it was expected,” said Carney Shegerian, Duffy’s attorney. “The evidence was just so plentiful how he had been so severely harassed.”

Three other Latino parks employees told the jury that the supervisor, Abel Perez, said he was biased against white workers. Most of the L.A. Superior Court jurors were black or Latino, Shegerian said.

The harassment began as soon as Perez started overseeing him in 2001, testified Duffy, who retired in 2010. After working in the Recreation and Parks department for nearly 20 years, he took an early retirement payout. All of the discrimination occurred in San Fernando Valley parks, Shegerian said.

The list of discrimination and harassment was long, the judges wrote: Perez assigned Duffy to parks that required more maintenance, but he didn’t provide him a helper. He reprimanded Duffy and called him names. At a 2006 meeting for part-time workers Perez said he hated “all white people.” Also, Duffy said that Perez threatened him with physical violence.

Duffy slipped and hit his head on wet pavement while working in 2004, compounding a previous head injury. It slowed his speech and made him forgetful, his attorney said. Perez taunted him about his disability, Duffy said.

Complaints to supervisors didn’t stop the harassment, the court found. After suing for discrimination, harassment and retaliation, Duffy received a $3.3-million jury verdict in 2013. With attorneys’ fees and interest, the amount is now more than $4 million, Shegerian said.

Perez, who is today a senior parks maintenance supervisor in the Metro East district, maintains he only disciplined Duffy because of poor job performance.

“I didn’t do the things I was accused of,” Perez said in a phone interview Tuesday, “and it’s a shame the city lost its appeal. People who know me don’t even believe this.”

City policy recommends firing an employee after two substantiated offenses of discrimination or harassment, but Perez says he has received no discipline. After any such trial, officials are also supposed to re-evaluate discipline, according to a 2007 city executive directive.

In other cases where the city made multimillion-dollar payouts to workers who claimed repeated discrimination, there was little or no discipline.

The parks department does not comment on discipline as a matter of policy, spokeswoman Rose Watson said.

City officials appealed the verdict on multiple grounds. They claimed Duffy had forfeited his right to sue by signing the early retirement agreement, but the court disagreed. Also, the city said the court shouldn’t have allowed certain hearsay testimony or a videotaped deposition of Duffy’s dying wife. But the court found the testimony didn’t qualify as hearsay and that the wife’s testimony was properly admitted.

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