California Verdicts

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Suit: Supervisor harassed about perceived sexual preference

Amount:

$17,394,972

Type:

Verdict-Plaintiff

State:

California

Venue:

Los Angeles County

Court:

Superior Court of Los Angeles County, Los Angeles

Injury Type(s):

brain-brain damage; cardiac-heart; urological-sexual dysfunction (erectile dysfunction); sensory/speech-vertigo; sensory/speech-tinnitus; arterial/vascular-hypertension; mental/psychological-anxiety; mental/psychological-depression; mental/psychological-emotional distress

Case Type:

Employment – Retaliation; Government – Municipalities; Employment – Workplace Harassment, Constructive Discharge, Hostile Work Environment, Sexual Orientation Discrimination

Case Name:

James Pearl v. City of Los Angeles and Does 1 to 100,
No. BC518568

Date:

June 14, 2017

Parties

Plaintiff(s):

James Pearl (Male, 49 Years)

Plaintiff Attorney(s):

Todd F. Nevell;
Scolinos, Sheldon & Nevell;
Pasadena,
CA,
for
James Pearl ■ Daniel G. Sheldon;
Scolinos, Sheldon & Nevell;
Pasadena,
CA,
for
James Pearl

Plaintiff Expert(s):

Anthony Reading; Ph.D.; Psychology/Counseling; Beverly Hills,
CA called by:
Todd F. Nevell

Defendant(s):

City of Los Angeles

Defense Attorney(s):

Dennis C. Kong;
Office of the City Attorney;
Los Angeles,
CA,
for
City of Los Angeles ■ Shanise M. Black;
Office of the City Attorney;
Los Angeles,
CA,
for
City of Los Angeles

Facts:

In April 2011, plaintiff James Pearl, a wastewater collection supervisor for the city of Los Angeles’ Bureau of Sanitation, filed charges with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, in which he claimed that he had been given an unfavorable job transfer in retaliation for participating in prior protected activities. Three days later, he was notified that he was being terminated. Pearl contended that the reasons given for his termination were trumped up and false, and that his termination was, instead, a retaliatory and discriminatory response to his complaint with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing. He also claimed that although he was married and is a heterosexual, his termination was a discriminatory response to his perceived same-sex relationship with another city employee, whom managers and supervisors perceived as being gay. Pearl contested his discharge through an administrative appeal to the Los Angeles Board of Civil Service Commissioners. Through that process, it was determined that the city’s claims regarding Pearl were unfounded, and Pearl was ordered to be reinstated. Pearl returned to work for the city on Oct. 4, 2012. However, he claimed that both prior to and after his attempted termination, his managers and superiors created and circulated demeaning photoshopped pictures depicting him and a subordinate as homosexual lovers. He also claimed that he endured various insults, criticisms, demeaning comments, suggestive remarks, and offensive posters and cartoons in regards to his alleged sexual orientation. He further claimed that the images and the offensive comments made along with them reached every wastewater yard in the city, but that when a colleague alerted a manager in the highest ranks of the Bureau of Sanitation about the mistreatment, the supervisor failed to take action. Pearl contended that, ultimately, under the unrelenting stress brought on by his hostile work environment, he collapsed at work on Dec. 26, 2013, and was taken away by ambulance. He never returned to work and is now on physical disability. Pearl sued the city of Los Angeles, alleging that the city’s actions constituted perceived sexual orientation discrimination, hostile work environment, retaliation, and failure to prevent harassment and retaliation. He also alleged that the city’s actions caused him to be constructively discharged. Plaintiff’s counsel contended that the senior managers of the Bureau of Sanitation, and particularly the Wastewater Collections Systems Division, were a close-knit, male-dominated group with an alleged long history of harassing, discriminating, and retaliating against employees who stood up or spoke out against discrimination in the Wastewater Division. Counsel also contended that most managers had been friends for many decades, socialized frequently away from work, and closed ranks against any subordinate employee who complained about any of them. Thus, plaintiff’s counsel argued that the work environment was openly intolerant of, and hostile to, anyone other than straight males, including anyone believed to be gay. Pearl claimed that shortly after he filed charges with the California Department of Fair Employment in April 2011, he was harassed and discriminated against because supervisors and managers in the department perceived him as being homosexual. He alleged that because his supervisors believed he was gay, despite the fact that he was in a heterosexual marriage, he endured various insults, criticisms, demeaning comments, suggestive remarks, and offensive posters and cartoons in regards to his alleged sexual orientation. He further alleged that the same supervisors and managers had a long history of discriminating and harassing homosexual employees. Thus, Pearl claimed that three days after he filed his complaint, he was notified that he was being terminated, but that his termination was really a retaliatory and discriminatory response to his complaint and his perceived same-sex relationship with another city employee whom managers and supervisors perceived as being gay. He further claimed that both prior to and after the attempted termination, his managers and superiors created and circulated demeaning pictures that were altered to depict him engaged in a same-sex relationship with another city employee. Plaintiff’s counsel contended that a supervisor used his city computer to photoshop Pearl’s face from his city identification badge onto photographs of two men on a jet ski and changed the orientation of the bodies to feature them facing in the same direction, with their arms wrapped around each other, as if in an embrace. Images of the city’s sanitation vehicles and buildings were also added to the background of the doctored photo and the water color was changed as if to depict the men as being at a wastewater yard. Plaintiff’s counsel contended that the supervisor called the principal clerk and the senior clerk typist II into his office, shut the door, and showed them the photoshopped images of Pearl and the other employee, which he appeared to use as a screen saver on his work computer. According to plaintiff’s counsel, the supervisor admitted to the two supervisors that he had created the images. Counsel also contended that a manager I in the Wastewater Division and one of Pearl’s supervisors were close friends and that they, along with other Wastewater managers and supervisors, repeatedly displayed the altered photographs on their work computers and cell phones, as well as forwarded the images throughout the entire department. Plaintiff’s counsel argued that as a result, the doctored images and the offensive comments made along with them reached every Wastewater yard in the city. Plaintiff’s counsel maintained that a high-level official in the Bureau of Sanitation was informed about the misconduct, but failed to take reasonable steps to stop it. Counsel also maintained that the city took no action whatsoever to investigate and put a stop to the ongoing harassing misconduct mentioned in the 2011 complaint email that was sent to the high-level official. As a result, Pearl learned of the offensive images being circulated by his managers and supervisors in the summer of 2012. Counsel further maintained that after Pearl prevailed on his administrative appeal and returned to work in the Wastewater Division on Oct. 4, 2012, Pearl found that the Wastewater Division remained a work environment that was openly hostile to those believed to be gay. Specifically, Pearl claimed that upon his return to work, he learned that the offensive, photoshopped images had been disseminated throughout the entire Wastewater Division and that his co-workers were still talking about the images behind his back and referring to him by offensive, derogatory names. He also claimed that his manager continued to possess and display the offensive images on his work computer and showed the photoshopped images to his new direct supervisor. He further claimed that other city workers continued to display the offensive images in the workplace and that when he approached them while they were talking in the workplace, they would make derogatory comments to each other that were clearly directed at him. In addition, Pearl claimed that offensive items, such as a corn cob, a butt plug and coupons for Ball Park Wieners, were placed on his desk at work. Thus, he contended that he continued to be subjected to an unyielding campaign of severe and pervasive harassment, discrimination, and retaliation. Plaintiff’s counsel contended that when Pearl returned to work, he was re-assigned to the day shift, rather than his former night shift position, and that as a result, Pearl lost five percent differential in pay that he had been earning prior to his attempted termination. Counsel also contended that within two weeks of his return, Pearl was informed that, in addition to his work load in Storm Water Operations, he would be assigned the added responsibility of the Skid Row Cleaning projects with several other city agencies. Prior to Pearl’s reinstatement, another city employee was responsible for the Skid Row Cleaning projects and the “acting supervisor” who had filled in for Pearl had not been given those dual responsibilities. However, upon his return, Pearl was also assigned the task of working through 30,000 backorders within Wastewater, which had accumulated over time. At trial, the manager and the supervisor denied any involvement in the creation and circulation of the offensive images. Defense counsel contended that Pearl did not complain, internally, about the alleged mistreatment and that Pearl’s assignments were dictated by work orders that accrued amid budget cuts and a lack of staff. Counsel also contended that Pearl did not know about the photoshopped images until after his termination, when others told him about them. In addition, counsel noted that Pearl stated in his deposition that when he heard gay slurs in the workplace, he did not know if they were directed at him. Thus, defense counsel argued that the alleged comments and images were trivial and isolated and that due to Pearl’s deposition, the alleged comments and images were not severe or pervasive.

Injury:

Pearl was hired by the city of Los Angeles’ Bureau of Sanitation in 2002 and he was promoted to wastewater collection supervisor in 2006. However, he was notified that he was being terminated in April 2011. While he contested his discharge through an administrative appeal to the Los Angeles Board of Civil Service Commissioners, he had no source of income and was allegedly unable to support himself and his family. Pearl claimed that he was denied unemployment benefits by the city, lost his health insurance, and became financially destitute. He alleged that as a result, he was unable to maintain mortgage payments on a commercial property that he owned and lost it through foreclosure. He also alleged that in order to exist, he had to apply for public assistance, food stamps and bus tokens, and he walked to the grocery store because he could no longer afford gas to fuel his car. He further alleged that he could no longer pay for the vehicle’s the insurance and registration. In addition, Pearl alleged that he was forced to rely on church food programs to feed himself and his family. After the appeal process determined that the city’s claims regarding Pearl were unfounded and ordered Pearl to be to be reinstated, Pearl allegedly found that he could not concentrate or focus upon his return to work and had lost 50 pounds. As a result, Pearl began to suffer from severe chest pain and he could not breathe, causing him to collapse at work. He claimed that it was determined that his blood pressure was dangerously high, a condition he had never had before, and that he was ultimately diagnosed with an acute stress disorder. Pearl claimed that, thereafter, his blood pressure remained consistently elevated and got worse when he was exposed to stress. Pearl contended that he has developed malignant hypertension, which remains uncontrolled, despite medication and treatment. He also contended that his condition causes atrial fibrillation with a rapid ventricular response, which causes him to experience spontaneous fainting episodes. He further contended that he suffered from brain damage as a result of his malignant hypertension and that it will progress and worsen over time. Pearl further alleged that he has developed vertigo and tinnitus, which led to balance problems and causing him to drift or “tilt” to one side when he walks. In addition, he alleged that his vision is now impaired and that he suffers from hearing loss in both ears. After his collapse at work, Pearl was diagnosed with major depression while at a Kaiser Permanente facility. He was subsequently taken off work and was treated in a partial outpatient program, where he received aggressive therapy. He claimed that, nonetheless, his anxiety and depression continue to affect every aspect of his life, including his relationship with his wife. Plaintiff’s counsel maintained that before Pearl’s exposure to hostile work conditions upon his return to the city in 2012, Pearl had no history of depression, anxiety, or problems involving his mental health. However, upon psychological testing conducted in August 2016, almost three years after Pearl last worked at the city, Pearl’s thoughts of suicide and feelings of helplessness, hopelessness and lack of control remained prominent. The plaintiff’s psychological expert opined that the effect of Pearl’s exposure to chronic stress after he returned to work in 2012 resulted in a “catastrophic” physical and emotional breakdown in December 2013, which rendered him permanently disabled. The expert further opined that Pearl is now clinically depressed, has erectile problems, is suicidal at times, is unable to sleep normally, has recurrent nightmares, is chronically tired, has lost any feelings of self-worth, is anxious and paranoid, is fearful and agitated, has hallucinations, and is unable to derive pleasure from normal activities. Thus, plaintiff’s counsel contended that Pearl, 55 years old at the time of trial, has been on permanent disability and continues to suffer from physical and psychological damage. As a result, Pearl sought recovery of past and future economic damages for his medical costs and loss of earnings. He also sought recovery of noneconomic damages for his past and future emotional distress.

Result:

The jury found that Pearl was subjected to unwanted harassing conduct and that the conduct was a substantial factor in causing Pearl harm. It also found that Pearl was retaliated against and that the city failed to prevent harassment or retaliation against Pearl. As a result, the jury determined that Pearl’s damages totaled $17,394,972.

James Pearl: $450,053 Personal Injury: past economic loss; $1,944,919 Personal Injury: future economic loss; $10,000,000 Personal Injury: past non-economic loss; $5,000,000 Personal Injury: future non-economic loss

Trial Information:

Judge:

J. Stephen Czuleger

Trial Deliberations:

2
 hours

Post Trial:

Plaintiff’s counsel moved for recovery of statutory attorney fees in excess of $1 million. The motion is pending. Defense counsel filed an appeal.

Editor’s Comment:

This report is based on information that was provided by plaintiff’s counsel. Defense counsel did not respond to the reporter’s phone calls.