A black Los Angeles police officer who said he endured racially related pranks and comments from his supervisor and others in the Central Division was on Tuesday awarded $1.2 million in damages for emotional distress.
A Los Angeles Superior Court jury deliberated for less than a day before finding in favor of Officer Earl Wright, a 23-year LAPD veteran who alleged a hostile work environment and supervisor harassment. The racially mixed panel awarded him $600,000 for both his past and future pain and suffering, for a total of $1.2 million.
Outside the courtroom, Wright said he was "very happy" with the verdict.
"I'm glad the jury looked over the facts and agreed there was harassment," Wright said.
In his final argument Monday, lawyer Gregory W. Smith alleged that former LAPD Sgt. Peter Foster, who is white, made life so intolerable for his client that he was hospitalized for a time and was off work for a total of seven months.
"Foster used race to bully people," Smith alleged.
Deputy City Attorney Casey Shim told jurors that Wright deserved no money because he often laughed at the very actions he now claims offended him. Shim also alleged that Wright himself engaged in racial banter -- sometimes toward Asian members of the department -- and did not immediately report the conduct that forms the basis for his lawsuit.
Wright filed suit in January 2011, claiming that the offensive conduct began in 2008-09.
According to trial testimony, Foster presented Wright with a cake that ostensibly was to honor the officer for his 20 years of service. However, the cake had within it a fried chicken leg and a slice of watermelon, according to the lawsuit.
In June 2010, Foster sent Wright a text message depicting one yellow duckling with its arms raised above its head while standing in front of five black ducklings, according to the suit. Under the depiction was a message that used a slang version of the "N" word to ask the reader what he was up to, the suit stated.
Wright also alleged that his face and that of another officer, Lenny Davis, were posted onto a poster hung in the Central Division that referred to the 1970s series "Sanford and Son."
Wright endured the atmosphere as long as he could in order to protect himself, Smith said.
"He was afraid of being subject to retaliation," his attorney said. "He knew what would happen if he reported it."
Finally, anxiety and high blood pressure caused Wright to be hospitalized, and he was off work for seven months until February 2011, Smith said. The hospitalization made Wright realize he had to stand up to the conduct of Foster and others, the attorney said.
Although Foster was eventually transferred and is no longer with the department, Smith said the LAPD was slow to take action against him and should have removed the sergeant immediately.
Shim said Wright's own decision not to come forward right away with his grievances undermined his claims of emotional distress.
He said Wright used offensive language himself while working on the streets.
The lawyer also said the LAPD has made significant efforts for several years to deal with internal problems of racism.
But Smith said Wright was never investigated for racially related banter and that there is no evidence he did so.
He also said his client did complain by filing paperwork with the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing in September 2010.
One of the witnesses who testified on behalf of the city and against Wright was another black Central Division veteran, Officer Deon Joseph, who often acts as a spokesman for the LAPD. Joseph told jurors that Wright laughed at some of the pranks he later described in his lawsuit as offensive.
Wright said that while he was surprised by Joseph's testimony, he does not believe it will lead to animosity between himself and his division colleague.
"I think we'll be cordial toward each other," Wright said.
Wright also said he plans to stay with the LAPD. He is assigned to the officer training division.