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NYC Tight-Lipped On Employment Lawsuit Settlements

Our New York City employment litigation attorneys understand that city leaders have quietly adopted a policy of shielding from public view the dollar figures it pays to settle the majority of lawsuits filed against either itself or its employees.The New York Times reports these figures were at one time always included in courthouse documents. However, about three years ago, the city began notifying plaintiffs who had filed suit that if they wanted their labor and employment case settled, one condition was that the dollar amounts would remain confidential.

Then last month, that policy was expanded to include any lawsuits that were filed against the city’s police department or its members.

Of course, the settlement amounts are technically public record, available through a formal Freedom of Information Act request.

We view this action by the city with skepticism for several reasons. One is that the new policy now requires potential litigants to obtain the city’s permission for information that once could be obtained with neither the city’s knowledge or permission. Essentially, it sets them on alert for a pending action, which can sometimes be harmful to a plaintiff attorney’s strategy. Additionally, while it has historically been typical to maintain confidentiality in settlements involving private parties, a city government does have an obligation to offer a greater level of transparency.

First Amendment attorneys have been quick to note that this shift is not consistent with the major issue of the public’s right to know. Even if it doesn’t violate the letter of the law, it certainly violates the spirit.

This is important not only from a taxpayer point-of-view, but also from the strategic perspective of knowing how the city is compensating victims of misconduct or abuse perpetrated by its employees.

A recently cited case involved a man who was wrongly arrested for gambling based on falsified police reports. Inside sources indicate the man settled for $20,000 – but only on the condition that the plaintiff agreed to omit the amount of payment from courthouse records.

The Times reports this was just one of thousands of lawsuits that are filed against city employees each year. During the 2011 fiscal year, the city reportedly spent nearly $665 million on awards or settlements. It was slightly less this fiscal year, with the total settlement amount reaching about $585 million.

The city said that the new policy started when a federal judge overseeing a police misconduct case stated she was uncomfortable releasing the amounts. However, it’s not clear why.

What is clear is that a government that is not interested in being forthcoming about the actions taken to right its wrongs is likely not all that interested in actually righting those wrongs at all.

The Law Offices of Ira S. Newman provides employment litigation representation in New York City, Long Island, Great Neck and throughout the area. Call 516-487-7375 or send us an e-mail.

Additional Resources:
City Is No Longer Reporting the Costs of Its Settlements of Federal Cases, Dec. 9, 2012, By Colin Moynihan, The New York Times
More Blog Entries:
New York Employment Discrimination Not Always Easily Recognizable, June 10, 2012, New York City Labor Law Attorney Blog