February 23, 2014

The NYC Comptroller Asserts His Authority

Newly elected NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer has just settled the false arrest and wrongful prosecution claims of David Ranta for $6.4 million. The number is not shocking, given that Ranta was incarcerated for 23 years as a result of the deliberate fabrication of evidence by NYPD Det. Louis Scarcella. What is surprising is that Stringer agreed to pay Ranta prior to the filing of a lawsuit and without the involvement of the Law Department. This is a seismic break with City policy and has triggered conflicting responses. But from a civil rights litigator's perspective, this was a sound decision and I hope to see more independence from the Comptroller.

In New York City, the Law Department, headed by a mayoral appointee, handles all litigation against the City, once the action is filed. While the Comptroller -- an independently elected official -- has the final say over settlement amounts, negotiations are conducted through Law Department attorneys and plaintiffs' lawyers only speak with the Comptrollers' Office when we are trying to figure out why a check is being delayed. There is one exception, which is the period of time between the service of a notice of claim and the filing of the complaint. During that period, the Comptroller's Office is responsible for setting up examinations of the claimants and, if they choose, working out a pre-action settlement. This was the posture of David Ranta's claim when the Comptroller's Office agreed to pay him $6.4 million.

This is the first time that I can think of where the Comptroller's Office has short circuited a substantial claim by paying it off without first letting the Law Department slug it out with the plaintiff. To be sure, the Comptroller's Office readily settles pre-action cases, but these are uniformly small claims; civil rights claims with very short periods of detention or slip and fall cases with limited injuries. The kind of cases where both sides benefit by avoiding litigation.

Not surprisingly, plaintiffs' lawyers stand behind this move, as indicated in this article in the New York Times. It is refreshing to see the City, having acknowledged liability -- Ranta was undeniably railroaded by a corrupt detective, as the Brooklyn District Attorney had admitted, and lost 23 years of his life as a result -- focus on working out a fair amount of compensation to right its wrong, and to do so promptly.

But it has been argued that the City does itself a disservice when it responds to a case with probably liability by immediately opening it's checkbook. Historically, the City waits for the lawsuit to be filed and then allows the Law Department to handle the case. Under the Cardozo and Bloomberg regime, cases like these are bitterly contested at all stages (think, Central Park Five, the Stop and Frisk cases, the RNC litigation, as well as countless individual cases with significant damages but little public awareness).

This litigation takes years and years and provides the City with two major benefits. By fighting every point along the way, the City can score some victories and plaintiffs understandably tire, and often find themselves compromising just to bring the emotionally exhausting process to an end. The possibility that plaintiffs will find some claims foreclosed or agree to cash out cheap is real, and this strategy undoubtedly can and does work.

But the real source of dismay appears to be territorial. It's litigation, and the Law Department wants its seat at the head of the table. For instance, former Law Department Chief Victor Kovner criticized the settlement, saying it deprives the City of the Law Department's expert analysis. While this may be true, the facts in this case were fairly cut and dry, and the settlement paid to Ranta was proportional to similar payouts to past exonerees. Moreover, the City will save substantially by not having to fund a lengthy defense, or face a possible judgment well in excess of $6.4, topped off with an application by plaintiff's counsel that would add hundreds of thousands, if not another million or so, in legal fees.

Stringer has defended his decision as being in the public's best interest, and he correct. Not every case can be resolved so early on, but those that can be, should be. Stringer should be commended for seizing the bull by the horns. 

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