December 21, 2014

The NYC Comptroller and the Garner Case

New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer is again showing a willingness to insert himself into NYC civil rights litigation.

Earlier this year, Stringer settled the claims of David Ranta, who had spent 23 years in prison after being framed by a NYPD detective, and Jerome Murdough, who died needlessly at Rikers Island, before any lawsuit had actually been filed. Facing an impending lawsuit by the estate of Eric Garner, Stringer is stepping forward to see if the claims can be resolved without litigation. These actions mirror his office's increased emphasis on pretrial settlements generally. It is a welcome change.

Normally, the Law Department handles lawsuits against the City, while the Comptroller's Office controls the purse strings. Once the action is underway, plaintiffs' lawyers litigate and negotiate with City Lawyers. While the Comptroller's Office decides on the amount the City might pay, there is no communication between that office and the plaintiffs. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it often leads to unnecessary litigation, or, perhaps more accurately, unnecessarily expensive litigation.

The vast majority of civil rights cases against the City are relatively low value, run-of-the-mill matters that do not require extensive litigation. More to the point, when they are litigated, the plaintiffs' lawyers can run up fees, which can very quickly become the tail that wags the dog. It is precisely the threat of such costs that spurs the early settlement of many smaller cases, and which militates in favor of Stringer's early settlement policy.

For instance, David Ranta's case was a win-win. That is, Ranta was able to receive substantial compensation immediately, without having to expend years of time and untold amounts of emotional and physical energy on the stress and uncertainty of litigation. His claims were promptly resolved, allowing him to focus on retaking control of his life.

At the same time, the City may have saved millions. Putting aside the many hundreds (thousands, perhaps) of labor hours the Law Department would have had to expend, the amount is likely well under what a post-litigation settlement would have cost, much less a jury verdict. More recent settlements and verdicts in NYC and Long Island have ranged from the $500k $1m per year. Even on the low end of the scale, a verdict would have eventually netted Ranta somewhere in the neighborhood of $10-13 million, plus many more hundreds of thousands, if not more, in legal fees and costs. So sure, the settlement deprived the City of the chance to refute the claims, but the litigation would have been bloody, and a settlement would have been the likely outcome, and for far more. Hence, Stringer saved the City money, which is precisely what he was elected to do.

With small cases, early settlements are clearly the smart option. As an initial matter, let's dispense with the silly notion advanced by PBA President Pat Lynch that the City ought to fight all these cases to trial. That is neither a pragmatic nor useful policy. The City, by it's own account, in 2013 lost more than 30% of the civil rights cases it tried in federal court. Not bad you say? Wrong, that's a terrible percentage. The City pretty much dictates which cases it tries, which means that it can't win more than 7/10 of the cases it thinks they ought to be winning. In many of these cases, the City leaves itself on the hook for hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees that would have been avoided altogether with a quick settlement.

To avoid such wasteful litigation, the City often tries to settle early. Stringer has taken that one step further, emphasizing pre-litigation settlements for small cases. These tend to settle, in the aggregate, for less money than they would if settled after lawsuits were filed, and thus save money for the City while providing a measure of compensation for potential plaintiffs.

The Garner case will be interesting to watch. On the one hand, Mayor de Blasio has stated a desire to do justice (or so he says). On the other hand, that seems like political pap. On the other, other hand, the Garner case, once it is filed, could drag on well beyond de Blasio's tenure. It is not at all clear how much it will take to settle the case, and whether that amount would be reasonable in the context of wrongful death suits, which turn in large part on the decedent's potential earnings, and the likelihood of a huge punitive award for the deliberate use of a choke hold which the NYPD had long since barred (but allowed to be used frequently).

Regardless of how this case pans out, Stringer's aggressive intervention in the litigation process is good to see. It changes the dynamic for the better, and reduces City Hall's political control over civil rights litigation. Good news all around.

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