Increasingly, New York City is settling civil rights claims for sizable amounts before those harmed even formally file a lawsuit.
There was the recent case of a former U.S. Marine who suffered mental illness and died in an overheated jail cell. His family was given $2.25 million in compensation. Then there were three half-brothers, convicted of a murder it was later proven they didn’t commit. They received $17 million. In another case, a man who served 23 years in prison before he was proven innocent received $6.5 million.
It’s never been unusual for individuals and families who have suffered profound losses as a result of civil rights violations by local, state and federal government employees to receive ample compensation. It’s not even all that unusual for both sides to reach a settlement prior to a case reaching the trial phase. What is unique is the fact those wronged never even had to file a lawsuit.
In some instances, these cases have been known to take years to reach a conclusion, winding their way through the New York civil appeals process.
The city comptroller said the idea is to assess the likelihood of a plaintiff win, and quickly settle those with a higher probability, thereby saving potentially millions of dollars in legal fees, court costs and interest.
Officials indicated this is likely to become more of the norm in civil cases, including potentially the case of Eric Garner, who died during an encounter with New York City police last year. His family has not yet filed legal action, but many speculate they will.
The comptroller said costs of judgments and settlements against New York City have climbed annually over the last several years. In the fiscal year ending last June, the city spent more than $730 million in judgments and settlements. That was an increase of nearly $210 million from the previous year. Some of this money, the comptroller said, could potentially be rerouted to other areas of necessity, including social services, education and affordable housing.
In some ways, this is positive for plaintiffs, who have the opportunity to avoid the time, expense and emotional turmoil of a trial or an extended legal battle. The problem is that many times, these agreements are confidential. So not only do many of the details never emerge, but victims and families are sometimes effectively muzzled, forbidden from speaking publicly about the incident that caused them such pain. Plus, the city never has to concede wrongdoing, something that is cathartic for many who have suffered egregious violations. When there is no concession of wrongdoing, nothing is likely to change. Not policy. Not law. Not attitudes or actions that perpetuated the action in the first place.
For some, this is not a trade-off they are willing to make.
If families do want to proceed with civil litigation against the government, the first order of business is to file a “notice of claim.” This details the basic allegations, and it is forwarded to the comptroller’s office. The comptroller is the city’s chief financial officer, and plaintiffs must first meet with that office and their attorneys.
After hearing from plaintiffs, those legal advisers consider whether the case has merit and whether it’s likely to succeed. Then, the case gets passed on to the city law department, which handles litigation.
However, the city charter allows for some exceptions. There is a provision that allows the comptroller to circumvent the law department and simply reach a settlement – before the case ever sees the inside of a courtroom.
There are approximately 30,000 claims filed against the city every year. Of those filed in FY2014, approximately 2,000 were settled by the comptroller prior to litigation.
The provision that allows this action was almost never used until last year. Then in February, the comptroller initiated the process after a claim was brought against a man convicted in 1990 for the slaying of a Jewish leader. He was later exonerated, but not until serving more than two decades in prison. The comptroller decided to pay roughly $6.5 million upfront, rather than forwarding the matter to the city’s legal office.
Here’s something else to consider: While some of these settlements are high, they could have likely been much higher. When cases go before a jury, there is a probability of a much larger award of damages if plaintiff prevails.
These are considerations plaintiffs will need to carefully weigh with their own legal team before choosing to settle.
The Law Offices of Ira S. Newman provides civil appeals representation in New York City, Long Island, Great Neck and throughout the area. Call 516-487-7375 or send us an e-mail.
NYC Settling Cases, Even Without a Lawsuit, March 9, 2015, NBC New York
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New York Civil Appeal Centers on State’s Strict Gun Control Laws, Oct. 1, 2013, New York Civil Appeals Lawyer Blog