2.1 million awarded to officer

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As reported in the L.A. Times and Daily News, Jeffrey A. Lipow recently won a case of retaliation and wrongful termination against the City of Los Angeles. His client, Richard Joaquin, was awarded over $2.1 million in damages, surpassing the $1.5 million settlement the city paid in 2007 to black firefighter Tennie Pierce, who sued for racial discrimination when colleagues put dog food in his spaghetti as a prank.

An LAPD motorcycle officer whose ongoing dispute with his superior snowballed after he was punished for clocking out five minutes early one day has been awarded $2 million from a jury who believed his subsequent firing was unfair.

Officer Richard Joaquin has been reinstated with back pay and is now stationed at the Los Angeles Police Department's Valley Traffic Division.

The jury awarded Joaquin the money even after a police Internal Affairs investigation and a high level review board sided with the superior and upheld Joaquin's dismissal.

City officials said they would consider appealing the award, the latest in a series of multimillion dollar payouts to city employees who have complained about mistreatment or discrimination.

Joaquin, of Corona, argued that the LAPD had retaliated against him when he filed complaints against the supervisor, who cited Joaquin in 2005 for insubordination for leaving work early.

"For the supervisor, it was a blatant act of disobedience," said Supervising Deputy City Attorney Daniel Aguilera.

That incident triggered a series of exchanges that eventually led to Joaquin's dismissal.

But Joaquin's attorney, Jeff Lipow, said his client saw the disciplinary action or leaving early as another example of the harassment that he had been experiencing for more than a year.

"My guy felt this was unfair and filed a complaint with Internal Affairs against his superior," Lipow said. "He felt he had been harassed for an 18-24 month period and this was the last straw."

Lipow said Joaquin, who was working as a motor officer at the Central Division when the incident took place, did not want to be interviewed.

Aguilera said the city has an aggressive zero-tolerance policy for harassment and was surprised it took Joaquin so long to file a complaint. A subsequent investigation cleared the supervisor of any wrongdoing.

Internal Affairs recommended that Joaquin be dismissed - a finding upheld by the Board of Rights, an LAPD tribunal of two command officers and one civilian who review disciplinary actions.

Joaquin appealed his dismissal in the courts and won the unanimous jury verdict against the city, which included back pay.

City Attorney Carmen Trutanich said the city is looking into appealing, but added the verdict is directly related to budget cuts in his office.

"We are down so many bodies, at some point we are going to be at the point where we're walking into court and trying a case without any preparation at all," Trutanich said. "If we had the budget we had two or three years ago, this wouldn't be happening."

Still, the city has been shelling out big money - in the form of settlements or jury awards - for years. In the dog food case, not only did Pierce get a hefty sum, two white Los Angeles Fire Department captains who took part in the prank won a separate judgment totaling $1.6 million, arguing they were more severely punished than a Latino firefighter in the case.

In addition, the LAFD cost the city $6.2 million for mistreatment of a lesbian firefighter, Brenda Lee, in 2007. In 2009, three black workers were awarded a total of $1.2 million after failing to get promotions.

Councilman Dennis Zine, who sits on both the Budget and Finance and Public Safety committees, agreed with Trutanich, saying the Joaquin case can be blamed on staff cuts at City Hall.

"If the City Attorney had the investigators he wants and had more time to prepare for cases, maybe we wouldn't have lost this case," Zine said. "It's $2 million that comes directly out of the public safety in the city."

Trutanich has had to take a 10 percent cut in his budget this year, resulting in reduced hiring and an inability to fully staff his Bureau of Investigations.

"It's an expensive retaliation," Lipow acknowledged. "The city never should have gone after him. What's expensive is the department chose to file charges and convict him. That's where the damage was. It was retaliation against him for making a complaint."

If you are in the Los Angeles area and believe you have been wrongfully terminated, or the victim of workplace discrimination,  or have any other employment law claim against your current or former employer, you need to consult with a qualified employment lawyer. Contact Jeffrey Lipow at (818) 905-0507 for a free consultation.

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