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Lawyer tells jury client should get $2 million in damages for emotional distress

City News Service | 3/25/2013, 1:48 p.m.

LOS ANGELES, Calif. -- A Black Los Angeles police officer is entitled to up to $2 million in damages for emotional distress he suffered while enduring racially related pranks and comments from his supervisor and others in the Central Division, the veteran lawman's attorney told a jury today.

In his final argument to jurors tasked with deciding Officer Earl Wright's hostile work environment complaint, lawyer Gregory W. Smith alleged that former LAPD Sgt. Peter Foster, who is White, made life so intolerable for his client that he ended up in a hospital for seven months.

"Foster used race to bully people," Smith alleged.

Deputy City Attorney Casey Shim countered 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.

"Action speaks louder than words," Shim said.

Wright filed his 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 states.

Wright also alleges that his face and that of another officer, Lenny Davis, were

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.

But Shim said Wright's own decision not to come forward right away with his grievances undermines his claims of emotional distress.

"It's his job to enforce the law and to protect himself and others," Shim said.

He said jurors should consider that Wright has used offensive language himself while working on the streets.

"I think you can read my mind, that Earl Wright gets nothing," Shim said.

The lawyer 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.