Cost of police lawsuits escalates as discovery begins
The city of Greensboro has spent about $1 million to date in payments to outside legal counsel to defend lawsuits against the police department stemming from allegations of racial discrimination under the adminis- tration of Chief David Wray, who resigned in early 2006. “There’s nothing about lawsuits that’s inexpensive,” Mayor Robbie Perkins said.
As of Dec. 15, the city had paid outside law firms a total of $970,899, including $330,192 to defend itself in a discrimination lawsuit brought by 39 black officers and $249,876 defending a separate suit filed by Officer Julius Fulmore, a black officer who has made similar claims of discrimination under the Wray admin- istration. Defending suits filed by Capt. James Hinson, another black officer, has so far cost the city $138,442. The numbers were released by the city in response to a public records request by YES! Weekly.
The city has also defended itself against suits brought by Wray at a cost of $190,955; retired Deputy Chief Randall Brady at $54,163, and Officer Scott Sanders and Sgt. Tom Fox, who coor dinated efforts to monitor black officers under the Wray administration, at $90,151. Those costs do not include compensation to city staff, including employees of the legal department and city manager’s office.
All but two of the suits, those brought by Sanders and Fox and by Brady, remain active. By far, the largest recipient of the legal billing windfall has been Smith Moore Leatherwood law firm in Greensboro, reaping $818,660 in payments to defend the city in lawsuits brought by the 39 officers, Fulmore, Hinson, Wray, Brady, Sanders and Fox. The lead attorney for the city is Alan Duncan, who also chairs the Guilford County School Board.
The city is also paying for the defense of former City Manager Mitchell Johnson, who is a defendant in the Wray suit. In contrast, the city has declined to pick up the tab for Wray, Brady and Sand ers, who are defendants in the suit brought by the 39 officers. The city has paid Brooks Pierce law firm $82,880 for the legal defense of Councilmember Trudy Wade, who is accused of disclosing the names of the 39 officers in violation of a confidentiality agreement, ultimately causing the city council to rescind a $750,000 settlement offer. Lead counsel George House is representing Wade at a cost to the city of $300 per hour, a discount form his usual rate of $415.
As the parties move into discovery phase, legal costs are likely to escalate.
So voluminous is the exchange of documents that a US magistrate judge set a date in September for completion of discovery in two separate cases involving the 39 officers and in the Fulmore case, but acknowledged that the complexity of the cases creates such uncertainty that the discovery period might have to extended even beyond that. Once discovery is complete, the parties will have to depose potential witnesses before the cases are ready to go to trial.
Amiel Rossabi, who represents Fulmore, said the city could spend from $1 million to $3 million in fees to outside counsel during the discovery process this year. Councilman Jim Kee said those figures are within the range council was given by its lead attorney.
The new city council received an update on the lawsuits in January, but members said they have not discussed whether to take the cases to trial or attempt to reach a settlement. Rossabi said the previous city council rejected a proposal last fall in which the city would establish a fund and give an arbitrator the authority to determine payments to plaintiffs, with any money left over going to a nonprofit dedicated to promoting interracial cooperation.
Kee and at-large Councilwoman Nancy Vaughan, who are normally close allies, fall on different sides of the question of whether to proceed to trial or settle. Other members are either undecided or unwilling to disclose their positions.
“I think we need to put an end to this saga,” Kee said. “I’m just not sure how to go about it right now. It appears it’s going to be costly if we continue in the courts. From a business perspective, if we can cut our losses and put this to bed I might be willing to vote for that.”
Kee added that he doesn’t believe the city is at fault in any way, but that sometimes it makes sense from a financial perspective to settle lawsuits. He said he was also aware that settling too quickly could encourage frivolous lawsuits.
“My feeling is that they’ve dragged on so long, I think the best way to finish them would be in a court of law,” Vaughan said. She added that the costs cut both ways.
“The thing to keep in mind is that our costs will be mirrored by the plaintiffs’ costs,” she said. “I guess it will be interesting to see how committed they are if they are able to come through the deposition process.”
Councilwoman Nancy Hoffmann declined to comment on what route the council might take and Councilwoman Marikay Abuzuaiter said she hasn’t decided.
Perkins declined to comment on what is becoming a game of legal brinksmanship and, potentially, a public controversy, considering that the council withdrew a settlement offer under intense pressure three years ago.
“I’m not going to comment on that,” he said. “That’s why we have a closed session: to discuss legal matters.”