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NYC Law Dept. Launches Unit to Defend Torts Against NYPD
New York Law Journal
New York City's Law Department is establishing a new unit to defend tort actions against police in state court, mirroring an initiative it put into place to fight, instead of settle, similar cases filed in federal court.
With an increase in the number of state court actions alleging misconduct by police officers against civilians, particularly in the Bronx, Corporation Counsel Michael Cardozo yesterday said the Law Department would be staffing a new unit to fight the excessive force, false arrest and malicious prosecution actions it views as weak on the merits.
Cardozo announced the unit's creation during a City Council budget hearing, where he unveiled a proposed $142 million Law Department budget for the 2014 fiscal year, which begins July 1, 2013. The proposed budget is $5.6 million less than the department's 2013 fiscal budget of $148.1 million.
The cost of funding the new unit will be $1.73 million in fiscal year 2013 and $3.46 million in 2014, according to the Law Department.
The agency employs 670 attorneys and 590 support staff. The state tort unit will be comprised of 45 staff, 29 of whom will be lawyers. One-third of the staff has already been hired, Cardozo said at the hearing.
The unit replicates a Law Department initiative in place since July 2011 that has taken a more assertive approach to federal civil rights actions arising from civilian-police encounters that the city once would have opted to settle for low dollar amounts to avoid the high cost of litigation.
That stance created a "cottage industry" developed where attorneys brought "marginal" cases in search of a quick settlement, Cardozo said.
In the program's first year, the federal unit, with 28 attorneys and six staff, tripled the number of cases it tried to verdict and won "a majority," according to Cardozo's written testimony.
"So far, it looks like this program is working," Cardozo said at the hearing.
Along those lines, he said the new unit would offer a "stronger presence" in similar state court actions.
City Councilwoman Gale Brewer, D-Upper West Side, asked Cardozo if the success of the federal initiative had redirected more actions to state court.
Though the Law Department was still studying the issue, Cardozo said that "certainly some" of the suits were ending up in state court in search of a settlement.
Yet between fiscal year 2010 and fiscal year 2012, there was a 35 percent rise in state claims alleging misconduct by police officers, "largely in the Bronx," the written submission noted.
According a New York City Comptroller's report, "police action claims"which include claims of false arrest or imprisonment, excessive use of force or assault, failure to provide police protection and shooting of a suspectwere the most frequent type of personal injury claim filed against the city in fiscal year 2011.
Resolving police action claims cost the city $59.6 million in fiscal year 2011, according to the report. That year, the overall city payouts for property and personal injury claims, including police claims, was $550.4 million.
The report noted a steady climb in both police action claims filed and settlements paid between fiscal year 2007 and fiscal year 2011.
Members of the plaintiff's bar welcomed news of the state court unit, if only because it meant quicker resolution of a case.
William Peterman of Corpina Piergrossi Klar & Peterman in the Bronx handles police misconduct cases. But he said he is "selective" in what he takes "because we know it's going to take years to prosecute a case to its conclusion."
"I think anything the law department does in an effort to expedite litigation of these cases is a good thing," he said, noting the city "generally" opts to settle.
Jeffrey Belovin of Belovin & Franzblau in the Bronx also said that in his experience, while the city "threatens trial, when push comes to shove, they settle."
But the time from filing to disposition can take between 3½ to four years, he said.
Belovin said his firm takes on only "legitimate" police misconduct cases.
If the city thinks the case is marginal, he said, it "should test us," adding he would be "delighted" to get an earlier trial.
When asked why police misconduct cases were filed more often in the Bronx, Cardozo said in an interview after the hearing that the question was better posed to plaintiffs.
Peterman said the number of claims "could be related to stop-and-frisk" tactics or "more aggressive policing."
But Belovin said the law requires such torts to be filed in the county where the incident arose, suggesting police in the Bronx are "not behaving appropriately."
Belovin said many Bronx residential buildings were enrolled in "Operation Clean Halls," which allows officers access to private buildings. But he said the program is "abused" as are stop-and-frisk tactics.
This article originally appeared in the New York Law Journal.