On February 10, 2019, the Albuquerque City Council Finance and Government Operations Committee received a report giving a breakdown of the latest city settlements agreed to in civil lawsuits filed against the city.
A total of 26 settlements were reported in the quarter where the city paid more than $2.1 million in settlements.
According to city reports, the recent payouts of more than $2.1 million is up from about $1.6 million the previous quarter and $478,340 the same quarter in 2018.
It is the city’s “Claims Review Board” that decides if a case should be settled and for what amount of taxpayer money.
The Claims Review Board has seven members who include the city’s chief administrative officer, city attorney, the personnel director or their designates, they determine then determines how to proceed after an attorney or claims adjuster presents information on the cases and make a request or recommendation.
Eleven of the settlements involved the Albuquerque Police Department (APD).
The settlements reached relating to APD ranged from officer-involved shootings to Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA) violations to violating the New Mexico Whistleblower Protection Act.
Notable APD-related settlements include Danan Gabaldon who was arrested while fleeing from APD police in 2015.
In 2015, Gabaldon was run over by an APD officer in a vehicle and Gabaldon sued for use of excessive force.
Gabaldon was awarded $75,000 by the city.
In 2010, Mickey Owings was shot and killed by APD and his family sued the city.
The APD shooting of Owings was severely criticized by the United States Department of Justice.
The city settled with Mickey Ownings family paying them $375,000 without the city defending that it was a justified shooting.
In 2014, Jeremy Robertson was fleeing APD police when he was shot and killed by APD and his family sued the city.
The city agreed to pay the Robertson family $225,000 without defending it was a justified shooting.
The largest settlement in the quarterly report was for $575,000 and involved an incident in Stardust Skies Park, but the case did not involve APD.
A man on a mobility scooter lost his balance on a gravel path next to an arroyo and his scooter fell into the arroyo, injuring the man.
The city built a guard rail.
Mayor Tim Keller’s office released the following statement regarding how the city decides to settle lawsuits:
“The City of Albuquerque and its Legal Department has a careful process in place that’s there to protect the public and its resources. We take each case one at a time, and after considering all the facts the Claims Review Board makes a decision on how to proceed. The amount paid out for any settlement is going to vary widely based on the facts of what happened. There’s also plenty of variance in the number of lawsuits filed in any given month. So the amounts paid out in settlement are also going to see some variance.”
COMMENTARY AND ANALYSIS
The amount of the settlements and the statement issued by the Mayor’s office makes one wonder exactly what the City Attorney’s office is doing to defend the City, especially when it comes to police misconduct cases and frivolous cases other than writing checks and “rolling over” without defending and settling the cases without advocating any defense.
The city is self-insured, meaning settlements are paid out with taxpayer funded monies.
The Albuquerque City Attorney’s Office employs 34 attorneys, numerous para legals, administrative assistants and support staff.
The City Attorney’s Office also employs private attorneys on contract to handle in the defense of cases, such as Workers Compensation cases for city on the job injuries.
The city’s Risk Management Division employs adjusters to help with claims.
Large fines and judgments against the city and APD for Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA) violations has become so commonplace to the point it has become a disgrace and a steady source of income to plaintiffs and their attorneys for the city’s failure to turn over documents people are legally entitled to under the state’s inspection of public records law.
The City Attorney’s Office itself has been hit with IPRA violation fines by the court’s for failure to turn over documents.
$15,000 and even $20,000 fines for violations of IPRA requests by APD and the City Attorney have become all too common place to the point that it appears APD views it as a cost of doing business.
The city’s Risk Management Division should be more than capable of administering a far more aggressive program with the other city departments to identify personal injury risks, such as a no guard rail along an arroyo.
The City’s Attorney’s office needs to take far more serious IPRA requests to save the taxpayers money.
With so many resources dedicated to the legal department and to city risk management, city taxpayers are entitled to demand and expect competent and aggressive defense when the city is sued and for that matter identify personal injury risk dangers for correction.
In 2010, it was the previous Republican Berry Administration that abolished the “no settlement” policy to the absolute delight of plaintiff attorneys and the courts.
The “no settlement policy” mandated that all “police misconduct cases” be tried before a jury with a few exceptions allowed when liability and misconduct was absolutely certain.
The philosophy was that the “sunlight” of an open courtroom and the presentation of evidence was the best disinfectant for police misconduct to inform the public.
The “no settlement policy” mandated that the City Attorney’s office aggressively defend the cases and police officer’s actions and required plaintiff attorneys to prove police misconduct and their client’s cases and damages.
Settlements are reached behind closed doors and the public is seldom given much of an explanation of how damages are arrived at and why resulting in much speculation.
The “no settlement policy” worked.
The City would often prevail when it went to court saving the taxpayers millions of dollars.
Even when the city did not prevail, judgments awarded by juries were often significantly less than what the plaintiffs were seeking.
Plaintiff attorneys absolutely hated the no settlement policy and so did the court’s because it is a lot easier to settle a case than try a case before a jury.
With the abolishment of the “no settlement” policy, the City Attorney’s office has the reputation of just settling cases for the sake of settling to avoid going to trial at all costs.
The city is viewed as an easy mark to settle cases for large amounts of taxpayer money without putting up an aggressive defense with “fear of a courtroom” by the City Attorney’s office.
The Keller Administration and the City Attorney’s Office needs to be far more aggressive in defending cases, have greater faith in the jury system and realize that there are times a jury needs to hear a case and determine damages, especially when it comes to police misconduct cases.