NYC’s policy is to fight, not settle, weak civil rights suits

An important article from the New York Times, written by Benjamin Weiser. Here’s the first paragraph:

The Bloomberg administration has embarked on an aggressive legal strategy intended to curtail the rising number of federal civil-rights lawsuits filed against New York. Instead of offering small settlements to avoid trial, the city started to identify weaker cases and has been contesting them in court, pushing many to trial.

Weiser gives trenchant examples of suits that plaintiffs lost in court. An interesting strategy. It will please both anti-civil-rights-lawsuit people and pro-civil-rights-lawsuit people like me because it carves away the sort of lawsuits that sound pretty embarrassing, such as:

In one case, the city refused to settle with a man who claimed the police shot him without justification as he was trying to surrender after he had taken hostages at gunpoint. The city said the man had refused to drop his gun and had placed an officer’s life in danger. The jury ruled for the officers.

Personal note: juries rarely rule for police.

In another example, a city lawyer, Raju Sundaran, told jurors that the plaintiff was a drug seller who had been “motivated enough to lie, to game the system and get money that he does not deserve and did not earn.” The city also won that trial.

As Weiser points out, the city’s aggressive stance against against lawsuits “it believed were based on weak evidentiary or legal grounds” has the secondary purpose of discouraging plaintiffs’ lawyers from “bringing marginal lawsuits.”

As I read the article, I thought about my own lawsuit, a personal injury one against a neighborhood building’s owner. My lawyers insisted upon naming, as well, the City. I protested: the City wasn’t responsible for that bad sidewalk on which a bone in my foot had been broken. My lawyers explained their reasoning but not entirely to my satisfaction. I thought their action was lazy lawyering: name everybody in sight and see who’s standing (and paying) at the end. (In my case, it was not the City. My lawyers had wasted the City’s time and my tax dollars.)

Weiser quotes “Another plaintiff’s lawyer, Gerald M. Cohen, whose firm has been involved in four such trials…” as saying, “‘I’ll be honest: we kind of got fat and lazy,’ Mr. Cohen said. ‘We were settling all of these cases. But this actually forces us to do more, and creates the potential to be more successful for our clients and for ourselves.'”

I admire Mr. Cohen for putting an optimistic spin on these turn of events, but the city’s policy will force him and other plaintiffs’ lawyers (in civil rights, at least) to review with special care a lawsuit’s potential and turn down clients whose cases, such as the ones named in this article, might not stand up before a jury. Lawyers can’t afford to pursue long contingency cases that lose.

This is good and this is bad. Read the article, see what you think.


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