NYC quickly settling cases of wrongdoing, lawsuit or not
- New York 02/22/2015 by Colleen Long, (AP)

A trio of half brothers who were wrongfully convicted of murder received a $17 million settlement from the city. The family of a mentally ill former U.S. Marine who died in a hot jail cell was awarded $2.25 million. And a man who spent 23 years behind bars before he was exonerated was given $6.5 million.

All these recent settlements were unusual because they were made before any lawsuit had ever been filed, part of an aggressive push by New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer to quickly dispense with civil rights cases that otherwise could drag on for years in the courts and cost millions in legal fees.

And the comptroller's office has signaled a willingness to keep doing it, including possibly with the family of Eric Garner, who died following an encounter with police last summer.

"I do not accept the fact that the cost of settlements and judgments against the city have to rise every year," Stringer said in a statement to The Associated Press. "The more money we can save the city on claims and settlements, the more we will have to spend on affordable housing, education and social services."

Stringer has said the city spent $732 million in settlements and judgments in the fiscal year ending last June, an increase of $208 million from the prior year.

While legal experts say any push to resolve cases is a good idea, such settlements keep some details from ever coming out publicly, include no admission of wrongdoing by the city and do not involve a change in policy.

"You don't have any law created or changed, and that's a big problem," said James Cohen, a Fordham University law professor. "But we live in a world where most cases don't result in law."

Ordinarily, the procedure to sue the city begins with a document called a notice of claim that details the basics, addressed to the comptroller, who serves as the city's chief financial officer and fiscal watchdog. After that, attorneys for the plaintiffs meet with the comptroller's office, which has its own attorneys who weigh each case and the likelihood of success before referring it to the city's law department for litigation.

But under the city's charter, the comptroller, which gets about 30,000 claims annually, can circumvent the law department and hand out money. About 2,000 cases were settled without litigation in fiscal year 2014.

That power was rarely, if ever, used on such high-profile civil rights cases until February 2014, when Stringer settled a case for $6.4 million brought by David Ranta, exonerated in the 1990 killing of a rabbi.

Since then, Stringer settled two other cases: a $2.25 million payout in October to the family of Jerome Murdough, a mentally ill inmate at Rikers Island jail who died after he was locked in a cell that sweltered to 101 degrees because of a malfunctioning heating system; and a $17 million settlement last month in the case of half brothers Robert Hill, Alvena Jennette and Darryl Austin, who spent a combined 60 years in prison before their convictions were vacated.

The figures are high, but experts say they could have been far higher. For example, the case of five teenagers wrongly convicted in the 1989 rape of a jogger in Central Park languished in court for a decade, racking up an untold fortune in legal fees, before it was finally settled for $40 million.

Settling quickly also spares both sides the intangible costs that go along with a drawn-out lawsuit, including potentially years of bad blood, headlines and battered reputations.

"If you settle it, you move it all behind you, and so can the victims, the families of those harmed by the underlying misdeed," said Jill Gross, a Pace University law professor and expert in mediation and arbitration.

The response has been largely positive, and some have suggested other cities take note of the strategy.

So far, the cases have not involved accusations of police brutality. That would change with Garner's family, who filed a $75 million notice of claim in October. The 43-year-old father of six was taken down by an officer who apparently used a chokehold. Garner yelled: "I can't breathe!" and later died. A grand jury's decision not to indict the officer in the death led to weeks of protests.

The family's attorney, Jonathan Moore, said they're meeting with the comptroller's office but no agreement has been reached. Garner's relatives have said they did not want to settle the case — they want to push for a change in police policy. That won't happen with a pre-litigation settlement.

But the truth is, while many plaintiffs seek some type of justice in the form of social or legal change, in the end nearly all settle for money and the city admits no wrongdoing, experts said.

"It is always about the money," longtime civil rights attorney Ron Kuby said. "People who have been truly hurt settle for money rather than social change, because they know that isn't going to happen anyway."